Library of Congress photos span 179 years of American life

By Bliss Bowen

The world’s first selfie;
Robert Cornelius, 1839.

Cute cat and dog pictures and videos seem to increase exponentially in response to the chaos of daily news, providing sweet momentary relief across social media. So it stands to reason that an exhibit of over 440 physical and digital photographs covering 179 years of American life would include at least one cat pic.

“Not an Ostrich: And Other Images from America’s Library,” the Annenberg Space for Photography’s current exhibit, does not disappoint: a 1936 publicity photo shows a none-too-pleased feline dressed as Brünnhilde.

“I just started laughing when I saw it,” recalls curator Anne Wilkes Tucker. “You knew that was going to be included [and thrill] the cat lovers of the country. We don’t have an equivalent dog picture, I’m sorry to report.”

Aside from Fido’s lamentable absence, Tucker says she strove for balance — historic and modern, rural and urban, famous as well as anonymous photographers. She perused a million of the more than 14 million images housed at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., a process that required her to sit “for a week to two weeks every month for a year and a half,” she says.

“That was great — I got paid to look at art,” she continues with a hearty laugh. “I had the best time. … We got down to a list of about 4,000, and that kept coming down to the list that it is now.”

Organized in accordance with Library of Congress collection priorities, sections of “Not an Ostrich” focus on facets of American life: politics, society, business, science, the “built environment,” arts and entertainment. The “Icons” section includes the earliest known picture of Harriet Tubman as well as photos of Abraham Lincoln, the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the 1937 Hindenburg crash and the 1970 Kent State shooting.

Robert Cornelius’ daguerreotype from 1839, the year of photography’s invention, is the earliest known self-portrait to exist in the history of photography — in other words, the first selfie. As such, it illuminates photography’s role in chronicling American life, but Tucker says she also chose it because it represents American ingenuity; Cornelius built his own camera using opera glasses for a lens.

The exhibit’s most recent picture, says Tucker, was created by Catherine Opie at Elizabeth Taylor’s home around 2015.

In the image that gives the exhibit its title, taken at a Madison Square Garden poultry show in 1930, actress Isla Bevan holds a “Floradora Goose.” It’s a curious shot, capturing one of those amusing moments when one social sphere rubs against another. Despite its wholesomeness, it calls to mind recent fashion constructions like the controversial swan dress Bjork wore to the Academy Awards in 2001.That kind of time-leaping cultural resonance is part of what makes the collection intriguing.

Left: Bella Lewitzky Dance Company; Dan Esgro, 1970s.
Right: Mother of seven among migrant farmers in California; Dorothea Lange, 1936.

“I’ve always been fascinated by pictures that in and of themselves don’t change, [that] meant something at the time it was taken, but as history changes around it our response changes,” Tucker notes. “For instance, there is a picture of a very young Hank Aaron when he first started playing baseball for the Milwaukee Braves. It’s a very nice portrait, but it’s just a nice portrait. But over time, when Hank Aaron became the person who broke Babe Ruth’s record, then when we all look at that picture, we try to see in that young man this extraordinary talent that would make him this amazing person, you know?

“I encourage people to think of the pictures as puzzles; the puzzle has to do with how history has changed around it. Another picture, of the Ku Klux Klan, was taken in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was reorganized … for people who before would have seen it as just historical, now it has a double resonance, historical and contemporary.”

During her almost 40-year tenure as curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from which she retired in 2015, Tucker helped the institution amass one of the country’s most distinguished photography collections. Some of the women whose photography she championed there are featured in “Not an Ostrich,” including Francis Benjamin Johnston, Dorothea Lange (whose Depression-era “Migrant Mother” photo of farmworker Florence Owens Thompson she calls “the most requested picture” in the collection), and Donna Ferrato.

“She got the minute that he hauls off and socks his wife in the face,” Tucker says of Ferrato’s “Behind Closed Doors.” “It’s a powerful picture, but also that picture was part of what got Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act [in 1994]. There are pictures that changed history in that way.”

Top: Ku Klux Klan initiation rally in Washington D.C.; circa 1920s.
Left: “Floradora goose” at
41st annual Poultry
Show, Madison Square Garden; 1930.
Right: Jacqueline Bouvier
and John Kennedy on
their wedding day;
Toni Frissel, 1953.

The humanity of some photographed moments surprised her, she admits, including one of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell with a tetrahedron-shaped kite made for his grandchildren (“a great mind doing something that fathers are doing all over the world”). She also singles out a sensitive portrait of jazz innovator Thelonious Monk, a shot of clotheslines strung between New York apartment buildings, and another Depression-era image of young girls competing to see who could make the best dress for no more than 35 cents.

Tucker says she tried to consciously “represent the fullness of the American population,” as well as the “various veins” of photography’s evolution as a fine art medium. The exhibit’s purpose is to heighten public awareness of the Library of Congress’ offerings; most of its photos will be posted on the LOC website. Tucker says symbols have been added to each exhibit photo that’s copyright free, to alert visitors they can download pictures they like at home.

“People on the West Coast think the Library of Congress is this building in Washington, but actually it’s this vast public archive that is readily available,” she notes. “That would make me really happy if people find pic-
tures they like, and like enough that they want to own.”

“Not an Ostrich: And Other Images” is on view from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays through Sept. 9 at the Annenberg Space for Photography, 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Admission is free. Call (213) 403-3000 or visit