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Monday, October 17, 2011

Five Years as a Photograph Archivist

Yesterday marked my 5th year anniversary working as a Smithsonian photo archivist. My love affair with photographs started at a much younger age, though. As a kid, my family’s photo albums were like treasure chests for me. I spent hours digging through photos and discovered many priceless images of my relatives, summer vacations, and birthday parties. I studied each print to such an extent that if I closed my eyes I could still describe every detail of it. I was also a big fan of slideshows. My father regularly attached a white sheet to the living room wall and projected our family photos so that they appeared larger than life. I loved running up to the wall and letting the beautiful and vibrant colors engulf me until I became part of the image, too.

At this early age, I was quite vocal about photo preservation and research too. I was known to yell at anyone who got fingerprints on the images. And I would always pepper my parents with questions like: Who’s that? When and where was this photo taken? Why does that person have such a funny hairdo?

As a professional photo archivist, I ask many of the same questions when working with images at the Smithsonian Institution. I always try to figure out and document the ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ of a photo. I’m still a great proponent of preserving and properly handling images (no fingerprints please!), but also take the time to examine and enjoy the beauty of each image itself. So, in short, my passion for photographs has not diminished. 

In honor of my 5 years at the Smithsonian and my lifelong affair with photographs, I share with you images I recently discovered in the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection that I manage at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. These photos give me the same thrill I felt as a child looking through family photos.

I love mistakes in photos. A finger in the frame or the blur caused by someone turning their head always makes a photo more interesting. Something about imperfection in the photo can make the moment captured seem unique and authentic.

This photograph of painter Ruth G. Durlacher working outdoors is imperfect in a different way, and yet, I find it so beautifully perfect. The image is a copy print, i.e. a photograph of a photograph. When Juley photographed this existing image, he did not line it up properly within the camera’s frame and so the inner image is crooked. The composition of the inner photo, as well as the repeating rectangles in both images reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I feel like I’m peering into another, slightly skewed and artistic world. 

I find beauty in deterioration. I can hear the collective gasp from my fellow archivists across the world. Of course, I’m not advocating for folks to purposely let their collections deteriorate. What I mean is that there can be beauty in deterioration that has already happened. Like a beautiful patina on an old brass statue, photographs with deterioration show the age of the object and the journey it has traveled. 

This B&W negative of painter Francis Vandeveer Kughler suffered from deterioration before the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired it in 1975. The lines resembling a spider web are what’s called ‘channeling’ and it usually occurs when film negatives have been exposed over a period of time to a high and often fluctuating temperature and relative humidity.

On the flip side to deterioration, I love well preserved photographs as well as the act of preserving them. In order to combat deterioration as described above, there are a variety of steps that photo archivists take to ensure the longevity of images, including rehousing images in archival enclosures, controlling light, and maintaining an appropriate storage climate. For film and color based photographic materials, it’s usually recommended to keep images in cold storage. ‘How cold?,’ you ask?

Me bundled up and shivering while working in cold storage.
This Cold! Temperature gauge I photographed while in a cold storage facility.

Despite my dislike of cold temperatures, I have always enjoyed working in the cold room at the National Museum of the American Indian. Even though I usually couldn’t feel my fingers after a few minutes, I knew that my actions were helping preserve the images so that others in the future may enjoy them as well. I have to admit, I also enjoyed the strange looks I would get from coworkers when I would walk down the hall in the middle of July with my thick winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves.

This Juley photograph of French painter Bernard Boutet de Monvel shows what cold storage can do to help preserve film materials. The image is in such good condition, that it looks like it could have been shot yesterday. I love the stripes in his outfit contrasted with the lines of the building behind him.

While I know that five years isn't that long and that I can still be considered a newbie in the profession, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working with photographs at the Smithsonian. I’ve seen many incredible photographs in person and through the SI Collections Search. I have learned so much and I hope I never stop learning.

Emily Moazami, Photograph Archivist, Research & Scholars Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum


  1. Hi
    I`m wondering if you also collect digital born images?

  2. Hello and thanks for your question. We do not currently collect born digital images in the photograph archives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. However, this may change in the future since most images are born digital these days. Some Smithsonian archival units do currently collect born digital materials. To find out more information about our many archival repositories, see our site:

  3. Hello Emily, where can I find some helpful reference where I can learn about how to preserve photographs over a long period of time? Do you have in this blog or in the Smithsonian Institution Archives blog?

  4. Dear Kaushik, thank you for your question. I'm glad you asked this question, because it's so important to think about the long term care and preservation of your photos. There are a variety of good resources to get you started.

    Yes, my colleagues over at the Smithsonian Institution Archives have a number of blog posts on the topic. Here are a few:

    Also, there are a variety of helpful sources outside the Smithsonian. Here are a few good overviews:

    Finally, I find these books very helpful:

    Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Diane Vogt-O’Connor. Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.

    Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of 19th Photographic Prints. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Co., 1986.

    Hope this helps!