Introduction: "Photographs at Harvard"

Josiah Parsons Cooke, Gore Hall, 1844, Talbotype, original negative and digital positive from negative, Harvard College Library, Houghton Library, Modern Books and Manuscripts, MS Am 2008Technical details about photography came filtering through the Boston newspapers and bookstores in 1839, and the seemingly wondrous invention seized the imagination of the Harvard community. Edward Everett Hale, a Harvard student and later noted theologian and author, began experimenting with the Talbotype, the first negative-to-positive photographic process, and the daguerreotype, a direct-positive process that yielded a single, unique image. A few years later, Josiah Parsons Cooke, a student who went on to become professor of Chemistry at Harvard, created Talbotypes of Harvard Yard from his dormitory window. His original paper negatives recording those graceful views now reside in Houghton Library.

From the beginning photography assumed a vital role in the college curriculum. In the 1850s, Harvard received a gift of 4,000 photographic reproductions of European paintings from Francis Calley Gray. In 1860, Professor Cornelius Conway Felton underscored the medium’s value to academic studies. "Photographs of works in every department of art serve an excellent purpose in lectures upon these subjects, and in general teaching," he said, "and as they can be easily and cheaply produced, there is no reason why this kind of illustration should not be extensively used."[1]

From the mid- to late 1800s the sciences and humanities branched into formalized disciplines—disciplines that required the analysis of data based on observation. In the 1850s, when the Harvard College Observatory undertook experiments to photograph the moon, Harvard President James Walker noted that these trials had "opened a field of extraordinary interest, inspiring the hope that they will ultimately lead to new and better methods of determining the relative magnitude and position of the stars."[2] The observatory would go on to create, over the course of a century, more than half a million photographs—a record of the night sky that is studied to this day by astronomers around the world.

Social reformer and professor Francis Peabody understood the value of the medium for the social sciences as well. "The eye," he reasoned, “is the primary organ of scientific knowledge. . . . Is not this familiar method of the naturalist equally available for the sciences which concern themselves with human history and conduct?"[3] Harvard’s Social Museum, which Peabody established in 1903 "to collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching," accordingly housed thousands of charts, graphs, and photographs illustrating social conditions in America and abroad.[4] By 1900 Harvard was emerging as a modern research institution, and continued throughout the century to amass collections of specimens, artifacts, and photographs in its newly established and expanding libraries, archives, museums, research departments, and teaching hospitals.

Efforts to create an inventory of this enormous and scattered body of photographic work date to the 1960s, when Oscar Handlin, then Director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History and later Director of the University Library, began a survey of photographs that related to American history. Several years later, the wealth of materials inspired Davis Pratt, the first curator of photography at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and first curator of photography at the Fogg Art Museum, to create detailed listings of a broad range of collections and related subjects. By the early 1980s, as the 150th anniversary of photography approached, institutions W.H. Tobey, Davis Pratt and Arthur D. Trottenberg with photographs, 1967, Harvard Alumni Bulletinacross the country began to reassess their photographic holdings with new appreciation. At this time, the Harvard Photo Curators Group was established under the auspices of the Harvard University Library. In one of its first collaborative efforts, the group conducted a systematic survey which identified an estimated four million photographs at the University. It was twenty years ago that the results of the survey, Photographs at Harvard and Radcliffe: A Directory, was published. Today, as this updated on-line edition reveals, the number of photographs has grown to approximately seven-and-a-half million images housed in 51 repositories.

As a whole, these materials rival other major collections in the United States and elsewhere, and their increasing use reflects a growing appreciation of photographs as primary source materials. The collections span the history of the medium in all its facets, from daguerreotypes to digital images, and document an encyclopedic range of subjects from art history to zoology. In general, photographs have remained in their original repositories and are often part of larger archival collections that describe and illuminate their context. Scholars can mine a wealth of supporting material that includes journals, research logs, albums, scrapbooks, letters, and diaries.

Many collections document research undertaken by the University. The Peabody Museum, for example, holds the original collection of glass-plate negatives, corresponding prints, and field notes from the museum’s seminal archaeological expeditions into Central America. Harvard’s photographs illustrate inventive uses of the medium as a tool for science, as revealed in the first photomicrographs at the Mineralogical and Geological Museum illustrating the crystalline beauty of a snowflake, or in the stirring early pathology views at the Countway Library of Medicine.

Photographs from the papers of professors and alumni associated with the University are found in the majority of repositories. The Theodore Roosevelt Collection holds documentary, journalistic, and family photographs of the well-traveled president and his family, friends, and associates. The papers of e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T. E. Lawrence, William James, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Alfred Tennyson at Houghton Library also include rich caches of images.

Some collections, while they may not relate directly to Harvard’s research or history, have been formed on the basis of the collecting interests of a particular repository. The Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library, for example, holds approximately one million photographs documenting the history of the performing arts, one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, houses 75,000 images relating to the history of women, and the history of photography itself is well documented in the Harvard University Art Museums.

Photographs relating to a subject of research sometimes surface in a surprising number of repositories that scholars may not have thought to approach. Images of Asia, for example, are housed not only in the extensive collections of the Harvard-Yenching Library, but also in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, among the papers of missionaries who traveled in Asia throughout the 19th-century; and at the Schlesinger Library in early 20th-century photographs illustrating conditions of women in Asia. The Arnold Arboretum, Botany Libraries, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Peabody Museum, and Tozzer Library of the Harvard College Library all hold images documenting botanical, natural history, and anthropological expeditions to Asia. Photographs of Asian art and architecture reside in the Biblioteca Berenson, Fine Arts Library of the Harvard College Library, Fogg Art Museum, and Frances Loeb Library in the Harvard Design School.

Depending on their context, these holdings are valued as primary sources in the sciences and humanities, as well as artistic images having high intrinsic value. In the 1880s, Harvard botanist Asa Gray collected Carleton Watkins’s magnificent oversized prints, taken on a California State Geological Survey, to augment the Gray Herbarium holdings (now part of the Botany Libraries). The aesthetic value of Watkins’s images, formerly acquired as botanical illustration, was recognized by Davis Pratt who transferred two photographs by Watkins from the Harvard College Library to the Fratelli Alinari, Florence: Panorama Showing Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio, ca. 1890, Albumen Print, Fine Arts Library, Historic Photographs and Special Visual Collections. Harvard College Library [click for larger image]Fogg Art Museum in 1976. The long list of noted 19th- and 20th-century photographers whose work scholars may find throughout the collections includes, among others, Eugène Atget, Felix Beato, Felix Bonfils, Margaret Bourke-White, Samuel Bourne, Mathew Brady, Julia Margaret Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Curtis, Walker Evans, Roger Fenton, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, David Octavius Hill, John K. Hillers, Lewis Hine, William Henry Jackson, Frances Benjamin Johnston, André Kertész, William Edward Kilburn, Eadweard Muybridge, Nadar, Timothy O’Sullivan, James Robertson, Eugene Smith, Southworth and Hawes, Alfred Stieglitz, William Henry Fox Talbot, Adam Vroman, Carleton Watkins, Edward Weston, John Adams Whipple, and Minor White.

Photo historian Beaumont Newhall recalled taking art history classes as a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1920s. "The Fogg Art Museum had a huge collection of photographs of architecture, painting, and sculpture from all over the world," he remembered. "The photographs were . . . excellent, and many of them had been made by photographers who are noted today as masters. . . . We students memorized them . . . with no idea whatsoever that fifty years later those very prints would be rare and valuable collectors’ pieces."[5] Indeed, researchers might not think to go to the Cabot Science Library to find striking examples of New England landscape photography or to McLean Hospital to find images of Italian immigrant workers, who were constructing the hospital in the early 1900s.

Over a century and a half since the invention of photography, we are just beginning to explore the depths of our photographic heritage. Scholars will come to learn that the University’s collections document nearly every aspect of human endeavor, holding meaning and value that we have yet to apprehend. In this spirit, we encourage researchers to use this Directory as a portal into an extraordinary visual legacy.

Melissa Banta
Curatorial Associate
Weissman Preservation Center


1 C.C. Felton, Thirty-Fifth Annual Report of the President of Harvard College to the Overseers, Exhibiting the State of the Institution for the Academic Year 1859-60 (Cambridge, MA: Welch, Bigelow and Company, Printers to the University, 1860), p. 19. [return to text]

2 James Walker, Thirty-Fifth Annual Report of the President of Harvard College to the Overseers, Exhibiting the State of the Institution for the Academic Year 1856-57 (Cambridge, MA: Metcalf and Company, Printers to the University, 1857), p. 7. [return to text]

3 Ibid., p. 1. [return to text]

4 Francis G. Peabody, The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1911), p. 4. [return to text]

5 Beaumont Newhall, “Photography at Harvard: A Reminiscence,” in Louise Todd Ambler and Melissa Banta, eds., The Invention of Photography and Its Impact on Learning: Photographs from Harvard University and Radcliffe College and from the Collection of Harrison D. Horblit (Cambridge: Harvard University Library, 1989), p. 18. [return to text]


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