An exhibition at the Library of Congress offers glimpses of American culture from the 1830s, the decade that saw the dawn of photography, to today.
The exhibit, which opened in March at the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, is titled “Not an Ostrich: And Other Images from America’s Library.” It features 428 photos — digitally reproduced and enlarged for clarity — curated from the library’s collection of 15 million photos.
The exhibit’s complementary online experience offers 100 photos of famous events, people and places, as well as of lesser-known subjects. Helena Zinkham, chief of the library’s prints and photographs division, says the “timeless and timely” images show the power of photography to make people laugh, cry, think critically about the world and cause change.
“It’s an amazing array of photographs that express almost every different human emotion,” Zinkham says. ShareAmerica asked her to analyze a few standout images from the exhibition.
Selfies are ubiquitous today, but they were far from the imaginations of those living in 1839. Yet that’s when Philadelphia chemist/photographer Robert Cornelius created the world’s oldest surviving selfie, using the new daguerreotype technology of the day. He shot it through a homemade box camera he outfitted with an opera glass lens. “We’re still in love with that picture today, because technology has come round and we all have a camera in our pocket,” Zinkham said. “There’s a universality of communication across time and then there’s a second level of meaning about how history and the present come together.”
In 1903, aviation pioneers and inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the world’s first engine-powered, controlled airplane flight. “It is the flight that helped them crack the big puzzle: ‘What kind of fabric on the wings? How to balance the weight load?'” Zinkham says. “All of those details, this was the moment when it finally gelled. And … within a matter of five years, there are airplanes being built all over the world.”
A cooperative, if silly, goose
The exhibit takes its name from a 1930 photograph of a large bird that — indeed — is not an ostrich, but rather an award-winning Floradora, or Sebastopol, goose, which is known for its whimsical feathers. Pictured during a visit to a New York poultry show, British actress Isla Bevan holds the goose, “and the goose seems very much at home, not anxious, not flapping around,” Zinkham notes.
“This isn’t a photograph that’s going to change people’s lives, but it’s a delight to look at,” Zinkham says.
‘All kinds of people’
“American Gothic,” in this case, does not refer to the 1930 Grant Wood painting of a pitchfork-wielding farmer posing with his daughter, but rather to an iconic 1942 Gordon Parks photograph of Ella Watson, who stands in front of an American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other.
Watson was a maid for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, a federal agency President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created under the New Deal to eliminate rural poverty. The photographer worked for the agency with his subject, and his photo became part of a series the agency commissioned. “Gordon Parks is building on the Grant Wood ‘American Gothic’ and saying that America is all kinds of people,” Zinkham says. “The largest question it asks is, ‘Who are Americans? Who counts as an American?'”
Portrait of self-determination
A 2012 photo of Eric Garcia Lopez, citizen of First Nation Purepecha Tribe and a dancer, was taken in New Mexico as part of an Indigenous photographic exchange project. It’s an example of how photographer Will Wilson, of the Navajo Nation, invites Indigenous people to pose at his studio in whatever way they want to be represented, “to let the world know how they see themselves,” Zinkham says.