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Smithsonian Expands Its Vision

Exhibition in 2003 will be first step in establishing a National Center for Photography.


WASHINGTON — Despite the prospect of millions of dollars in budget cuts, the Smithsonian Institution has great news for photography fans. It has launched a new initiative which, if it succeeds, will create a National Center for Photography at the museum complex.

The idea, quietly hatched by Smithsonian photography curator Merry Foresta, will surface in May 2003: the first general survey of the Smithsonian's trove of 13 million photographs, at the Arts and Industries Building.

Foresta is selecting "At First Sight: Photography and the American Imagination, Treasures of Smithsonian Photography" from 600 separate photograph collections housed in the Smithsonian's 17 museums. Often little-known outside their various disciplines--and never before examined across the board--these images were acquired to serve many purposes, including art, science, history, anthropology, astronomy, zoology, medicine and engineering.

There are bridges, railroads, empresses, shahs, nude male models riding bareback, Amelia Earhart with her airplanes and Jesse James and his dandified gang posing in derby hats.

The show, if it succeeds, will be the first step toward establishing the National Center for Photography, a longtime dream of Foresta's, who was curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum before being detailed to this initiative.

"For years, I've felt--along with several other Smithsonian curators--that something needed to be done to preserve the various photographic collections in the Smithsonian, and to make them more accessible," Foresta says. "They've been underutilized because no one really knew what was there."

The center would serve as both a real and a virtual portal to the photo collections within the Smithsonian. It will also have an exhibition space and education center. Exactly where remains to be seen.

"It's one thing to brag about 13 million photos; it's another thing to see to their overall care and feeding," Foresta says.

Foresta's office walls are covered with photocopies of the images she's considering--amazing, curious and wonderful things that give an idea of the breadth and richness of the Smithsonian's holdings.

From the Air and Space Museum is an 1880s wedding portrait showing newlyweds in a hot-air balloon. From the Sackler Gallery archive, the strange image of the last empress dowager of China (1835-1908) with her 6-inch-long nails.

There are American curiosities, such as the Civil War officer in full-dress uniform, exposing his abdominal wound for the benefit of medical science. And there are exotic, haunting images, such as the Sackler's "Veiled Woman With Pearls," a woman barely visible behind a gauzy covering, made about 1890 by the superb Persian court photographer Antoin Sevruguin.

"The Smithsonian was the first American museum to form a collection devoted to photography," Foresta says. "And the first keeper of photographs, Thomas Smillie, was a visionary who believed that photos had to be collected for their own value, as well as for their function in certain divisions."

In 1912, Smillie contacted Alfred Stieglitz, the great photographer and avant-garde New York art dealer, and asked him to assemble a collection representing the best contemporary photographers. Stieglitz sent important prints by himself, Edward Steichen, Baron de Meyer, Frederick Evans, Octavius Hill, Clarence White--27 framed images in all. Total cost, $200.

Smillie also purchased for the Smithsonian the camera equipment of Samuel Morse, the inventor who introduced photography to America in 1840, a year after its discovery. "It's amazing to know that photography came to America just two years before the Smithsonian was founded," Foresta says. "That technology and this institution have been joined from the start."

The works Smillie collected became part of the National Museum of American History's department of photo history, perhaps the most visible part of the Smithsonian's photographic collections until 1983, when Foresta began collecting and exhibiting photographs at the American Art Museum.

"By the late '70s, the story of photography was increasingly being told by art museums," Foresta says. "Now all the art museums have them, and photographs have become objects in themselves.

"What we need to do now is to take photography out of the preciousness of the art world. Most of these photographs were made for a utilitarian purpose; it's a recent notion that they're only art."

What Foresta needs now is someone willing to donate $3 million in seed money. Without that, she says, the center can't happen.

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