We’re lucky to have the Library of Congress in D.C. Not only is it an architectural marvel, but it’s jam packed full of information, including some of the most famous photographs in the world. For those of us not lucky enough to live within Metro distance of the greatest library in the U.S., the LoC is taking that show on the road and opening their largest exhibition on the west coast at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker (who was named America’s best curator by TIME in 2001, fun fact) Not An Ostrich: And Other Images From America’s Library is an exploration of the Library’s uncatalogued photographs. From horrific photos of the KKK, to portraits of prominent people and cute cats, the exhibition’s 500 photos contain a little bit of everything.
We called up Tucker to talk about some of her favorite pieces in the collection, what it was like to have access to 14 million photos and along the way, we got side tracked by D.C. amazing art scene. Come get nerdy with us.
Let’s go back to the beginning, how did you come to team up with the Library of Congress?
Well, for this specific project, the idea began with Wallis Annenberg, who is the president and CEO of the Annenberg foundation. She saw a program on the Library, I believe on television, and she became interested in there being a show at the Annenberg Space for Photography. This is my fourth show that I’ve done with the Annenberg, but I came into the project and they decided that it would focus on uncatalogued photographs. The [Library of Congress] had 14 million photographs and they just haven’t had time to catalogue and get all of them online. That’s how it started.
What was the curatorial process behind it? You selected almost 500 photographs, how long did it take to go though the collection and select those?
It took about a year and a half of spending a week to two weeks almost every month, excluding December of course, to go. The really fun part, well… I got to take a look at photographs, that’s the fun part. Because they were uncatalogued I depended on the extraordinary staff at the Library to bring me photographs. I couldn’t go through the catalogue and say, “Bring me this.” So they just brought me whole archives and I would just sit and go through them. I love the Library of Congress, I used the Library of Congress for my first book in 1973, so it’s a long relationship. It’s just an extraordinary collection. So it was quite fun.
What was your schedule like when you were going through these photos?
I would only break for lunch. So 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I was trying to get as much done as I could within the week, or occasionally two weeks. It’s a lot of concentration and two weeks of eight hour days, I was pretty tired at the end of that. There were just discoveries that made you laugh or gave you the chills. The other thing that I did, and I hope the people who go to the exhibition or look at the photographs on line do, was I learned so much. I want people to be entertained, first of all, but then if they get curious about a particular picture, then they can find out more.
That makes sense. You went through a learning process and you want the viewer to go through a learning process.
I just want them to realize that there’s this extraordinary opportunity. I know you’re based in D.C., but if people like spending time on the Internet, they can go to the Library’s website and type in any subject matter. For instance, I noticed that you have written two stories on cemeteries in Washington. So I went on the website and I typed in “cemetery” and under Washington D.C. there were 333 entries. You can type in any subject and just scroll through it. It’s just an adventure.
Bringing this exhibition to the west coast, and it’s the largest exhibition the Library has ever done on the west coast, do you think they Library will be able to expand their audience?
Well, that’s our hope. In fact, in the show, we’ve put a little logo, it’s actually the copyright sign with a slash through it and that means that picture is copyright free. Which means that any person who likes a picture that has that sign, can go home and download that picture. So it’s just letting people know, that if you love a picture, you can own it. For instance, Dorothea Lange’s photograph the “Migrant Mother” is the most requested photograph in the Library’s collection, so clearly thousands of people have downloaded that picture.
Were there any photos in the Library’s catalogue that surprised you?
One of the finds for me was a picture they didn’t know they had because it was in these file cabinets. It was a 1920’s picture of a Ku Klux Klan group initiating 50 new people. It was taken only two miles from Washington and it’s truly chilling. One of the things about the show, and of course I picked that picture long before Charlottesville. One of the things I realized was how cyclical history is. I would find pictures in the Library and I would realize that certain mechanisms, such as marches on Washington, go with our history. When people feel strongly about something, that’s the way the manifest it, with a massive march on Washington. I’d never thought about it.
When you were going through the photos, did you sense any themes or stories? Did anything like that factor into your process?
Well, the exhibition is organized according to the Library’s own collecting priorities, so they’re logical like business, science, portraiture, social and political. So that made my life simpler, because I could then break it into their own priorities and then within each of those sections it’s chronological. A picture that made me smile was a picture, it’s the 30’s and it’s a competition for young girls who made the best dress that costs less than 35 cents.
Oh my god.
I went, “Whoa! Oh!” That’s during the depression, but still. I’m not even sure you could buy anything with that today.
There are things that make you smile. There’s a picture we’re using in the press of a cat with a Brunhilde helmet on, you know from Wagner’s opera. I’m sure that picture is going to be seriously downloaded by the cat lovers. There are things that make people laugh, there are thing that are a little scary. There’s a picture of a father who is looking at his small daughter so adoringly, any of us have to respond to this adoration that he has. There’s so many levels that you can connect with the stories that are told in these pictures.
Is it weird to be done curating it? You spent so much time on it, is it strange for it to be over?
Well, I’ve been a curator for 50 years and that’s always the strangest part. When people are arriving to the opening, they’re discovering it, and it’s the closure moment for me. That’s always been the odd part. You’ve put your heart and soul into something and you’re hoping people like it, but it’s done. One of the sadder parts for me, is you build really close relationships, like with the staff at the Library of Congress. Now I don’t have a reason to see them and I will miss them. There are people there who I really loved working with. They love what they do and they’re good at it.
Based on your many years being a curator, is this one of the longest projects you’ve worked on? How does it stack up?
Oh no, I did a history of war photography 1839-present and that took ten years and the catalogue was 600 pages. As a writer, you will appreciate this, I had to write 24 essays. My husband said that I was 20 feet away and not home.
Do you prefer working on a deadline? Or do you enjoy the more leisurely decade long projects?
It was a big project for three years, that’s a big project for a three year deadline, but yeah, we all need deadlines. What would get done if we didn’t have deadlines? You can always say, “Well I’ll get to that next week,” and then next week’s here and you have to sit down and do it.
Who do you think is the best curator in the United States right now?
What, are you trying to get me hung? [Laughs]. I guess that I would say… Not to be presidential, but I am, I’m very excited as a senior person about the number of extraordinary female curators in the field of photography at the major museums. Sarah Greenough, right there are the National Gallery in Washington is an extraordinary curator. Sarah’s just slightly younger than I am, but she’s built that collection from nothing. She was the first photography curator at the National Gallery and she has worked with donors and built an extraordinary collection.
In the generation below that, there are these great women in their 20s and 30s and 40s who… When I came into the field there weren’t women curators at major museums. There were women curators, but they were at universities. When I came into the field, there were very few role models and most of the role models were women who were mostly photo historians. That’s a major change in the decades I’ve been in the field. I’ve built relationships with some of them and I’ve trained some of them. Some of the young women who work for me are now curators. The guys are fine, it’s nothing against the guys, it’s just really exciting to see women as part of the discussion.
How do you think the field has changed since you’ve been in it? You’ve been so influential in your career, have you noticed any big trends?
First of all, the Internet. The Internet didn’t start coming in until the 21st century. Someone would asked me why I had purchased a particular image from a Czech photographer and I said, “Because at the time I didn’t know he’d made any others.” What I meant by that was, there were no books on him. I just saw this picture, I responded to it and I acquired it for the museum, but I didn’t know anything about him. In those early days, back in the 60s and the 70s, we were all flying by the seat of our pants. We were just seeing work that interested us, researching it and using it as bread crumbs on a trail to find out more. Actually, that picture by the Czech photographer, eventually I did a show on the Czech avant-garde after going to Prague and seeing what else was there.
Now it’s so different. They just have to get online, it’s extraordinary what’s online. That still doesn’t absolve them of what I call ‘creating knowledge’, which is finding a subject that hasn’t been discussed and focuses on it and putting the pictures and the information together into something important. To mention another D.C. person who I greatly admire, Philip Brookman, who is on the staff of the National Gallery, he is opening, I think in 2019, a retrospective of Gordon Parks and we have seven Parks images in the Library show. Parks will be the first African American photographer to have a show at the National Gallery.
That’s so crazy.
Yeah. Philip used to be at the Corcoran, so he’s a rock solid D.C. person. When the National Gallery acquired the Corcoran, they acquired Philip. But Philip and I did a Robert Frank show in 1986, so I’ve known Philip and I’ve followed his career and the collection he built at the Corcoran. Philip often did the unpredictable. He found something, like the Gordon Parks show, he saw something that hadn’t been covered, that needed to be covered and built beautiful exhibitions.
Do you think it’s harder then because you have so much information available to you?
In a way, yeah. Absolutely. It’s overwhelming. It’s sort of like being confronted by 14 million photographs at the Library. [Laughs] And I only looked at a million of them, you know? I had 13 million to go.
Did you feel overwhelmed when you were doing this?
In the early days. Until I began to feel comfortable that I had a structure, I really was nervous. Once I began to find patterns. You look at the pictures and then you let the pictures show you the patterns and then you can build on the patterns.
So what were the patterns?
Portraiture was the first pattern that was so clear. The Library has the first, as far as anyone knows, it’s the first self portrait made in the history of photography in 1839. We start there. We come all the way up to the photographer Cathy Opie, who in essence, did an extended portrait of Elizabeth Taylor by photographing her house. So it’s sort of a portrait in absentia… Which is a very modern idea.
Then it was very clear that the Library has an extensive holding on civil rights. There’s a number of pictures on civil rights in the show.
There’s a woman named Carol Highsmith, who has photographed in all 50 states, she’s done it by raising money and she’s given all the pictures, tens and thousands of pictures to the Library. Then there was a company called the Detroit Publishing Company a hundred years early who were photographing many of the same places as Carol, so it was logical to look at what they photographed and how things have changed.
Then there’s a man named Camilo Vergara, who has focused on America’s African American and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York, Detroit and LA. Vergara is a sociologist, so he’s photographing economic disadvantage.
First of all, I chose them because the Library holds their work in great depth… But also because the Library didn’t just collect the beautiful, they collected other documented areas. They’re very conscientious to try and tell the story of America.