WASHINGTON — From its very beginnings, the Smithsonian Institution has taken and collected photographs. Masses of them.
John Brown's steely eyes were captured in a daguerreotype by August Washington in 1846. A now-extinct Tasmanian hyena, sleek and striped, attracted photographer Thomas Smillie in 1891. Harry Bowden went to Jackson Pollock's chaotic studio in 1949 and found an unintentional abstract of cans and brushes. As the 20th century ended, the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory Center recorded hot gas in the Milky Way.
Spread across the Smithsonian's 18 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo are 13 million photographs. In the hallways and laboratories are about 700 collections of photos. Harnessing them into a form that gives researchers and the public some access has long been a goal for Smithsonian caretakers.
But like a lot of things at the Smithsonian, you had to know where to go to find what you were looking for. Some photos were locked away in the researchers' storehouses.
This week, however, the Smithsonian Photography Initiative launched an electronic means of looking at a small part of this vast collection. A website, www.spi.si.edu, provides access to 1,800 digital images, the work of 100 photographers, who used 50 different processes.
"The Smithsonian was born at the same moment as photography. Then, the Smithsonian was a very modern institution and quite naturally picked up the new technology," says Merry Foresta, director of the SPI projects. "Photography could bring back to the Smithsonian things from the world, and this gave the Smithsonian a way of disseminating itself back into the world."
The question, Foresta says, was how do you find what's important and artistic when there are photographs of every subject the Smithsonian touches, including archeology, marine science, space travel, celebrity portraits and presidents?
"Almost 2,000 images in the face of 13 million may not seem a lot. We have tried to create a good sample and an interdisciplinary sample. This allows us to test in a small way how this might work," she says.
For about 30 years, the idea of a physical institution, a Center for Photography, was debated. But that faded as fundraising became an uphill battle and the Internet provided new possibilities.
"In the early part of the 21st century, this seemed like a lot of work, to create a building. We decided to embrace fully the idea of the virtual world," Foresta says. Museums were beginning to digitize their collections, and many curators and scientists were very protective of their materials.
"Quickly we realized we would have a war on our hands if we were loading up the trucks and saying, 'Bring your photographs.' It would have destroyed what is unique about the Smithsonian. The photographers are embedded in the subjects," Foresta says.
The website was built with a $500,000 gift from the Comer Foundation, a Chicago-based family fund.
One test, now that hundreds of frames are quickly available, will be how people use the site.
In the first format, people can build their own scrapbooks; for example, portraits of Native Americans. The opening page has an interactive feature called "Enter the Frame."
The visitor can browse by name, photographer, Smithsonian museum, decade and other key search terms. Then they can string them together or go on to another topic.
But will people be looking for a cultural benchmark, a personal memoir or scholarly information?
"At first it seems free-form and gives people an opportunity to experience the interconnectivity of the images. So is that what they want to do?" Foresta asks.
The rugged majesty of the Great Pyramid was captured in 1858 by Francis Frith. A contact sheet of John F. Kennedy and his daughter, Caroline, shows their playfulness in the weeks before his inauguration.
There is a photo showing Washington's Addison Scurlock protesting outside a theater showing "Gone With the Wind" in 1939. Bob Dylan was snapped at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 by Diana Davies. And Sandra Raredon used digital radiograph to show the lines and bones of the surgeonfish.
This is a beginning, Foresta says. "The website is the first manifestation.... It's not complete. We have built the house with many rooms yet to be furnished."