University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The George Eastman House Research Center, A Brief Introduction

Volume XXVIII · Number 2 · Winter 1975
The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House: 
The Research Center: A Brief Introduction


Recently the New York-based film maker and critic, Hollis Frampton, reviewed two British photographic exhibitions. His review1 began with an account which by extension defines a set of implications that photography holds for both art and culture. With a certain amount of journalistic immediacy, Frampton reports on the discovery of an incredible vessel found a number of decades ago.

A monolithic sphere of approximately one thousand feet in diameter is found floating off the coast of England by a ship colliding with it on a fog-laden night. The sphere, presumed by some to have been the product of intelligence, is towed up the Thames and beached at the Isle of Dogs, whereupon it is examined and scraped clean by workmen anxious to determine what might rest within. Excitement is added to anxiety when a single word is found inscribed on the sphere's surface: "Atlantis."

A team of specialist investigators is sent through the hatch into the sphere supposedly from the Lost Continent: a mountaineer, a psychiatrist, and a photographer. Much later they reappear, and, as Frampton reports, exclaim with an "ecstasy of boredom" that they have found ". . . nothing. Or rather, less than nothing: they have found onlyphotographs . . . photographs of every sort and condition. Some are immaculately preserved, others eroded and dog-eared and faded past recognition. They are boxed, or tipped into albums, or rolled into cylinders that crack at a touch, or strewn in loose stacks on shelves or underfoot. Some few bear signatures, or captions, or dates.

Most are on paper, but a few images adhere to metal or glass; very occasionally, a picture adorns an otherwise undistinguished mug or platter. Interspersed throughout the mass are verbal oddments: manuscript pages, pamphlets, articles torn bodily from magazines, a few books. And that's all. The most pitiless research turns up nothing of value.

"Once the find is established as utterly worthless, there remains the problem of disposal. Respectable institutions flatly refuse to have anything to do with the dusty mess; finally, a few indigent archives of technological incunabula are persuaded to trundle away a portion of the stuff. The rest is given out to the middle classes, as a sort of perverse ballast for their attics, or else it just disappears."

A generation passes, with much of the discovery lost and forgotten -- until "an obscure doctoral candidate stumbles upon an hypothesis that electrifies the scholarly world. Kneeling in the gloom of a subcellar in Rochester, New York, leafing through a crate of Atlantis' leavings, the young man glimpses a pattern of coherence in its contents . . ."  From his discovery the young man concluded that the society of Atlantis devoted its entire cultural activity to the making, or rather the fabricating, of a complimentary and artificial civilization created solely by the photographic image-making of scale models which are constantly modified so as to simulate the passage of time.

That this anecdote was included in Frampton's review as a metaphoric introduction to the state of the art of photographic history was clearly signaled in his very first sentence. Yet it did not prevent at least one young couple from driving from New York City to Rochester, New York, one day. Entering the International Museum of Photography's Research Center earnestly grasping the copy of Artforum in which Frampton's review was published, they requested in all seriousness that they be allowed to view the "Atlantis photographs." When told sympathetically that their assumption was based principally on a literary convention and that the photographs in the archive were not of some imaginary culture but of our past, the couple quietly exited.

Nevertheless, Frampton's metaphorical device illuminates many parallels between the International Museum of Photography's collections and the sphere. The similarity between the museum's photographic archive and that of the Atlantis collection exists in both the physical description of the photographs and in the substantive content of the images.

At present, the museum's collection is made up of a number of smaller sub-collections relating to types of photographs, subject matters, authorships, and provenances. The collection as a whole is comprised of approxirnately one hundred fifty thousand to two hundred thousand images; as the collection has not been fully catalogued as yet, this represents a fairly conservative estimate based simply on certain varieties of "shelf counts." Also included is a small but significant collection of paintings and graphics which relate to the history of photography either directly, as in graphic prints made through the intervention of a photographic process, or associatively, as in cartoons or drawings which illustrate the subject of photography.

When the present accommodations for the Research Center were achieved in 1966/1967, it was a basic understanding that the archive would be based on a traditional print cabinet with a print archive physically contiguous with a research library. This design would therefore allow researchers the opportunity of calling for either an image that could illustrate a technical process or a historical theme they had found reference to, or for a volume that might possibly illuminate a given image they were examining. The research library portion of the Research Center contains approximately twenty thousand volumes and serials on the history of the art, science, and social aspects of photography. Continuous subscriptions to more than seventy-five periodicals of a wide range of nationalities afford the staff and visitor the possibility of sorne familiarity with international achievements and occurrences within the medium. A small collection of autographed letters and manuscripts by photographers and historians further complements the resources of the printed material.

In sheer numbers, the collection may not be the largest photographic archive in the world: indeed it falls far short of the many millions of images that the Library of Congress maintains. Nor does it pretend to the intense coverage of American social documentary photographs to which the University of Louisville Photographic Archive has just claim. In its international range and historical density and diversity, however, the collection at this museum is one of the two most significant general collections of the history of photography in the world. The other is the Grégoire collection of the Prentenkabinet of the Rejksuniversiteit of Leiden, although this latter collection is much smaller in number of items by a factor of ten.

The tenor of the collection is set primarily by three major core collections. The Eastman Historical Photographic Collection was the first and earliest formed of the three. Combining a group of historical photographs from Dr. J.M. Eder of Vienna with their own collection of Kodak photographs, George Eastman and the Eastman Kodak Company obtained a discrete survey of the growth of photographic technology since the medium's beginnings in the late 1830s. A century later, in 1939, the same company purchased the French photographic collection of Gabriel Cromer, who had acquired, during the decades surrounding World War I, what was and still possibly could be the finest private collection of its kind.

Three years after the museum was founded, in 1947, it acquired as a gift the foremost American collection of historic photographs and photographic literature: the Alden Scott Boyer collection. It is at once confusing and fascinating that Boyer, of Chicago, not only knew the Parisian Cromer, but the two collectors had repeatedly exchanged pieces. Consequently, it is not unusual to find a fairly scarce volume of photographic incunabula with Boyer's nearly ubiquitous handwritten comments in red ink also stamped with the collection label of Gabriel Cromer.

The majority of the material in the archive has entered the museum via most generous gifts of its friends and associates. In the 1950s the Photo League of New York presented its collection of over six thousand negatives and prints by Lewis Wickes Hine. This sociologist-turned-photographer, with his pictures of urban slums, child labor, and immigrants, made a profound and lasting declaration of certain unseemly aspects of American social life during the first few decades of this century. Nearly in complete contrast to the reportage style of Hine, the estate of Alvin Langdon Coburn was willed to the museum in 1965, replete with thousands of his prints. The work of this American-born photographer has been acclaimed continuously since his early career as that of one of this century's most accomplished artists. It is interesting to note that in 1917 it was Coburn who was the first to direct his attention toward a type of photographic abstraction.

Through these and other donations such as the recent bequest of the work of Nickolas Muray, the American portraitist and advertising photographer, and through various purchases of collections such as Zelda Mackay's outstanding collection of daguerreotypes, the museum's archive has benefited steadily from a vital acquisitions program. The policy has simply been to continue adding to the already immense holdings every significant image whose technological, aesthetic, and historic meanings might conceivably complete some lacuna in the collection. Lacunae in such a collection are wonderfully impossible to fill entirely because they occur in often highly specialized, even seemingly trivial, aspects of such a wide range of subjects-for instance, an example of an obscure technique, the earliest of a certain style in images, a given print by a major photographer, or any print whatsoever that in some way demonstrates a pictorial convention or a new yet qualitatively precise manner of looking at the world. By implication, this allows for the acquisition of just about any image the collection does not have a copy of, or any volume lacking from the library; the implication is correct insofar as qualitative judgment is kept imperative.

In the museum's print and rare book collections are many of the veritable treasures of photographic incunabula and masterpieces (if this word has not been deleted from the language as yet) of photographic art. From such items, a schematic tracing of the history of the medium can be easily obtained. Indeed a random glance through the pages of Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography will underline this allegation.

Ignoring for the present the library's holdings in what is generally called the "pre-history of photography," including sixteenth- and seventeenth-century treatises on optics and magic light effects, eighteenth-century reports on the uses of camera obscurae and machine-derived silhouettes, and first editions of fabulous fictions perfectly describing photography a century prior to its invention, the collections begin nearly at the beginning of the medium. While the museum lacks any of Niepce's héliographies or Bayard's direct positives of the late 1830s, it does have an extensive collection of material relating to the inventor of the first successful photographic process: Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Of the thirty-two variant editions and translations of Daguerre's first instruction manual, the library has nearly one half. Having considerable associative value are the number of drawings, lithographs, and paintings by Daguerre also in the collection. There are only two extant daguerreotypes by the inventor that are signed on the plate; one of these is in Prague, the other at the International Museum of Photography.

Other daguerreotypes of significant importance are, for instance, one of the only extant panoramic daguerreotypes by Friedrich van Martens of 1846 showing a wide-angle view of Paris, Gabriel Harrison's full-plate portrait of his son in the allegorical pose of the youthful Christ, and some eleven hundred portraits by the Boston team of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Hawes, who together during the 1840s and 1850s achieved some of the most emotive portraits in the entire history of photography. Similarly, there are over two hundred portraits and other images on paper by what was called the calotype process made by the Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. It is also the consensus that theirs is an epitome of photographic portraiture.

The first major book illustrated by photography, William Henry Fox Talbot's Pencil of Nature (1841-1844), is represented in the archive in addition to a large number of other examples of early photographically illustrated titles. Examples of such publications are:  Maxime DuCamp's Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie (1852), the complete set of the jurors' reports for the great Exhibition of 1851, the first edition or volume of Julia Margaret Cameron's privately published version of Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1874), and Peter Henry Emerson's Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888). Further, there are three dissimilar copies of Blanquart-Evrard's La photographie, ses origines, ses progrès, ses transformations (1870), the first history of photography illustrated by actual photographs, and one copy of an edition of 350 of William Bradford's mammoth folio entitledThe Arctic Regions (1873), with its stunning albumen prints of the Arctic landscape by Dunmore and Critcherson.

Portraits of the famous, although not collected for their own sake, make up a large portion of the collection. Alexander Hesler's famous print of Abraham Lincoln; Carjat's Baudelaire; a collection of more than sixty of Julia Margaret Cameron's portraits of the literary, artistic, and scientific personalities of her time such as Sir John Herschel, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and G.F. Watts; and the sumptuous and unique album of portraits of Victor Hugo taken by his son Charles and Auguste Vacquerie on the Isle of Jersey are a few of the important portraits in the collection dating from the last century. The portrait works of such photographers as Nickolas Muray, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Arnold Newman are but a few of the twentieth-century achievements in this genre held in the archive.

Insofar as documentary photography is concerned, the archive has a file of literally thousands of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stereographic photographs, that mode of photography adjudged as popular play that managed to produce representations of nearly every aspect of daily life in this country and abroad. In the same vein, although a bit more elegant and sophisticated, is the reportage of the London street scenes done by John Thomson and published in his Street Life in London (1877). Thomson is also noted for his documentation of mainland China, reproduced in a four-volume set in 1875, a set now exceedingly scarce.

During most of photography's history the distinction between a so-called "art" photograph and one made exclusively for documentary ends has never been at all clear. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the exquisite, oneiric images of Paris created by Eugène Atget from ca. 1898 until just a few years before his death in 1927. Approximately two hundred of his prints are in the archive. Atget tirelessly recorded the streets, the architecture, and the details of prosaic life with such a sympathy and intuitive sense of form and temporality that his images present us not so much with the factuality of Paris, but with a shared emotional and aesthetic series of epiphanies. Seldom has Atget's achievement been equalled, but often it has been approached. The work of the American Walker Evans and certain other photographers working for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s is similar in that they treat the record with an amount of aesthetic deliberation and sensibility. Equally important, however, is the fact that behind any artistic interpolation still remains the phenomenal relatedness between the image and the "physical world." These images are as capable of eliciting an aesthetic experience as they are of providing us with valuable facts about our past and present.

The tradition of photographic "art for art's sake" comprises a fairly large portion of the collection. From the portraits of Cameron to the delightfully picturesque renditions by noted "pictorialists" like Gertrude Käsebier, F. Holland Day, and Heinrich Kühn, the nineteenth century is most adequately in force in terms of art photography. Twentieth-century abstractions, as in the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn and László Moholy-Nagy, 1920s purism represented by the images of Edward Weston and Paul Strand, and contemporary experimental imagery from Eduardo Paolozzi and Robert Fichter to Jerry Uelsmann and Robert Heineken, all establish the principal aesthetic aspirations of the modern period. To this already quite large body of images are added numerous contemporary prints in a process of constant updating and augmenting of the archive.

If what has just been sketched could be considered as some of the high points of the history of photography -- the major touchstones as it were -- then it would still be erroneous to view this selection as conceptually complete. By no means do the critically acclaimed "chestnuts" of history represent anything but a minute microstructure of the history of the medium, and usually a very personalized one at that. These images were by the principal characters, the most notable names, or they were images representing the most significant innovations or apogees in the art and science of photography.

Between and below these masterpieces lies the magma of anonymous images that have defined the ubiquity of the medium and have established the power and presence of the camera image. If what has been listed above could represent the art of photography, then what we are considering now might be called the folk art of photography. Most often the photographer is unknown, and more often the subject is unidentified. The archive contains literally thousands of these unidentified images in albums, scrapbooks, and loose images.

We can obtain a sense of the people and places of the past from these images, what the people looked like and what they thought and valued. For in a very real way, to photograph someone or something bestows on that subject a significance that usually outlives the subject. In a sense, the act of photographing engenders a form of immortality on the subject by a kind of implicit preknowledge that some future spectator will look at the image.

Through these amateur, anonymous images, it is possible to discern the life styles, the concerns, and the environments of our past. As such, that ubiquitous and familiar snapshot holds within it the real possibility of becoming a historical document. This folk art tradition -- the snapshots and amateur photographs -- presents us with a kind of social history usually ignored by the historian, but one just as crucial for an understanding of and empathy with our past.

Perhaps that is why the citizens of Atlantis filled their sphere with the "less than nothing" of photographs.


1 Hollis Frampton, "Digressions on the Photographic Agony," Artforum, XI, 3 (November 1972), pp. 43-51.


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