Library of Congress puts spotlight on 440 snapshots
The photograph’s caption says it all: “Nice Feather Dusters.”
Three of these cleaning tools appear in the right hand of a late 19th-century peddler. He wears an untidy pseudo-necktie. It undermines his straight-laced expression. Another is poking oddly out of a bag. It is by his left side. They do not look like a feather duster. They look like the back end of a bird.
In another featured photo, an 11-month-old appears to do the impossible. He appears to raise himself into a pull-up.
The man behind the camera was a teenaged Stanley Kubrick. He was later known for his work in sci-fi. But there’s no trick of the light happening here. Look closely. You’ll see that the baby, Kent, is being supported by bodybuilder Gene Jantzen. That was his father. He cradles the baby in one hand. It’s as if he’s lighter than air.
These snapshots are two of roughly 440. They are featured in a show. The show is called “Not an Ostrich: And Other Images from America’s Library.” It is a collaborative exhibition. It is now on view. It is at the Annenberg Space for Photography. The space is in Los Angeles.
The show draws on the Library of Congress’ photo archives. They include more than 14 million images. They span three centuries. Anne Wilkes Tucker was the curator. She notes in a statement, moments of “glamour, worship, invention, bravery, humor, cruelty and love.”
Tucker is curator emerita at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She tells the New York Times’ James Estrin that she spent a year and half sifting through the library’s vast archives. The curator estimates that she studied one million of the 14 million total photos. That's according to the Cut’s Melania Hidalgo.
Tucker selected images based on her gut reaction at first. But she soon followed a different path. She decided to pursue a more inclusive representation. She wanted a mix of the country’s diverse regions. She wanted a mix of religions. And she wanted a mix of demographic groups.
The final group of photographs brings unknown images to the level of famous ones. Take the playful shot “Brünnhilde.” It captures the profile of a cat in a Viking helmet. It’s placed alongside Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”.
The show traces the evolution of photography. It spans from the daguerreotype to digital. Older selections include an 1839 self-portrait. It is informally dubbed the “world’s first selfie." Another is the earliest known portrait of Harriet Tubman. Newer shots include a 2006 snapshot. It is of a couple. They are dining at Wendy’s. It was shot on Halloween. One of them is in civilian wear. The other is decked-out in a chicken suit. And there is a pair of portraits depicting a 16-year-old girl. She is on the first and last day of her treatment for an eating disorder.
“Not an Ostrich” gets its name from a 1930 photo. It was of actress Isla Bevin. It was taken at the 41st-annual Poultry Show. It was in Madison Square Garden. She is holding not an ostrich as the caption suggests. She is holding a prize-winning “Floradora Goose.”
A blog post describes the show. Beverly Brannan, Adam Silvia and Helena Zinkham are LOC staffers. They write that the show reminds viewers to ask, “What are we looking at?” It’s a big question. And it's one without an easy answer. The image is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” That's what photographic theorist Susan Sontag noted in 2003.
The Annenberg–LOC collaboration gives viewers a chance to delve into America’s past. The exhibition itself features high-resolution digitizations of the original images. Its online counterpart includes hundreds of previously unseen snapshots. Many of them are free for public use.
“[The exhibition is] really to make people aware that this incredible resource is available and largely free.” That's what Tucker tells Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon. “I’m also hoping that people will learn from it. And I hope they understand that pictures are an access into history.”