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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Archivist as Marathoner

Paul Juley, Peter A. Juley’s partner and son, in their photography studio. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum.  

The Juleys ran the most successful fine arts photography firm in New York from 1906 to 1975. Their clients included major artists, galleries, museums and private collectors. The collection provides a unique record of 20th century art; sometimes the Juley photograph is the only visual documentation of altered, damaged or lost works.
In 1996, shortly after the Summer Olympic Games closed in Atlanta, Rachel Allen, the head of the Research and Scholars Center, wrote the following to describe the role of archivists in their organizations.

We are the distance runners. We are the keepers of the catalogues, the archivists, the librarians. We are the marathoners of the museum. Ours is not the race quickly won. Our work is measured by accumulation in thousands of records, numbers of books, linear shelf feet, and sometimes even the size of the backlog. Ours is to collect and catalogue, to compile and classify, to manage and preserve. We measure not in miles but in years, and decades, and generations. The finish line remains on an ever-distant horizon.

This "marathoner's refrain" formed part of an American Art article announcing the completion of printing archival study photographs for all 127,000 negatives in the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection. The effort to print every negative in the Juley Collection was tremendous, but it was just one of several hurdles archives staff had to overcome in the quest to make the collection accessible. Before printing began, museum staff moved the collection from Juley’s New York studio to Washington, D.C. Next, they faced urgent preservation issues such as deteriorating nitrate negatives and fragile glass negatives. Additional challenges included numbering the negatives, documenting the notations on the original negative sleeves and developing a computer system to store the collected data. At times progress seemed slow or paused due to lack of resources, but the knowledge that they were working on a collection of high historical kept the team moving forward. Allen’s metaphor describes this consideration of current and future students and scholars: 

Like the ancient courier Pheidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta to seek help against the Persians, we to are messengers. We preserve the pieces of history -- the letters, photographs, bits of data, and ephemera -- and pass them on, from one generation to the next. Our work endures over time.
William Zorach in his studio, at work on the full-size clay model for The New State of Texas, photographed by Paul Juley.  Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Juley Collection holds more than 4,700 portraits of artists. The Juleys’s portraits have been reproduced in many exhibitions and publications, providing insight into the artists lives and artistic practices.

Work in the Juley Collection continues today. Archives staff and interns are researching the Juley photographs to identify the artworks depicted and expand the preliminary records. We are also digitizing the Juley images to make the collection more accessible. Although the finish line for these tasks seems far away, we have the example of the archivists who came before us, who set a goal and kept moving to achieve it.

Rockwell Kent, The Wall Street Runner, photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum. 
The Juley number assigned and inscribed by archive staff is visible in the upper left-hand corner. 

For more about the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, visit the Photograph Archives website at or read the following articles:

"The Marathoner’s Refrain" by Rachel Allen in American Art, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), 76-82.

"A Photographic File Covers 80 Years of Our Artistic History," by George Kittle in Smithsonian, Vol. 13, no. 12 (March 1983), 114-124.

Alida Brady
Photograph Archives Coordinator
Smithsonian American Art Museum

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