Fifty Photographs: selections from SCUA collections

Fifty Photographs: selections from SCUA collections

"In the order of nature, families are dispersed, by death or other causes; friends are severed; and the 'old familiar faces' are no longer seen in our daily haunts. By heliography, our loved ones, dead or distant; our friends and acquaintances, however far removed, are retained within daily and hourly vision. To what extent domestic and social affections and sentiments are conserved and perpetuated by these 'shadows' of the loved and valued originals, every one may judge. The cheapness of these pictures brings them within reach, substantially, of all.

"In this competitious and selfish world of ours, whatever tends to vivify and strengthen the social feelings should be hailed as a benediction. With these literal transcripts of features and forms, once dear to us, ever at hand, we are scarcely more likely to forget, or grow cold to their originals, than we should be in their corporeal presence. How can we exaggerate the value of an art which produces effects like these?"

                                          --Marcus Aurelius Root, The Camera and the Pencil (1864)

In his influential defence of the art of photography, written on the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the daguerreian process, Marcus Aurelius Root extolled the medium for its unique capacity to preserve memory and make it available to all. More than any fine art, he insisted, photography strengthened the "social feelings" and brought the nation together. In that way, it was nearly divine.

As archivists, we agree. More than text or the spoken word, photography has the ability to translate meaning and emotion into understanding. Photography is not just worth a thousand words, it is a language unto itself. As an institution devoted to preserving social and cultural memory and making it available for all, SCUA has placed a heavy emphasis on photography over the past decade,  collecting entire archives whenever possible. Our holdings now include hundreds of thousands of images, with over 50,000 currently available online.

The premise of this exhibition is simple: to select one image each from fifty collections in SCUA both as an effort to explore the growth of these holdings and the range of "social feelings" embedded in them. For many collections, it is a challenge to select just one "favorite" image, and many of our favorites and some of our best photographic collections have been edged out. But the beauty of photography is that it will always be there to remind us of our lapses.