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American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections

Pictures: Business & Art

Underwood & Underwood, publisher. The stereograph as an educator.1901. Stereograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Pictures have traditionally been put into service to market ideas and products. But pictures themselves have increasingly been products marketed to an expanding consumer base.

The Prints and Photographs Division's collections support the study of image-making as a business—how image makers created pictures directly for consumption by the public.

  • Archives of photographic firms and studios reflect the application of photographic technology, almost from its inception, to fueling consumer interest in the likenesses it could produce.
  • Collections highlighting particular photographic formats illuminate the rapid proliferation of a variety of photographic product lines.
  • The division's corpus of historical prints demonstrates the ways in which print publishers at the same time used non-photographic technologies for reproducing images in order to feed and further stimulate consumer demand for pictures and for the products they could portray.

The business of making pictures is not easily separated from the creation of pictures for art's sake, however. The products of commercial photo studios and print publishers highlight the marriage of aesthetics and commerce. Although the division has historically made a distinction between prints and photographs mass-produced for sale to a broad market and those produced for the fine art market, the distinctions do not always hold up in practice. Both photographs and prints have traditionally provided a relatively inexpensive, democratic means of bringing art to the masses; both have also earned reputations as special forms of aesthetic expression, savored by the elite.

The following "Business & Art" collections are highlighted in these sections of the guide:

  • Daguerreotypes
    The majority of the Library's daguerreotypes (more than 800 items, 1839-64) are portraits, including 384 items credited to Mathew Brady's studio, the largest collection of Brady studio daguerreotypes in existence.
  • Professional Photographers from the Post-Daguerreotype Era
    Portrait photography was a staple of many photographers who earned a living with their cameras in the post-daguerreotype era. 
  • Ambrotypes & Tintypes
    The invention of wet collodion photography processes in the 1850s allowed the development of these two new kinds of photographs. 
  • Commercial Photographs of Native Americans
    Many commercial photography firms embarked on this effort in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with the well-known Edward Curtis photographs, the images frequently focus on women and their activities.
  • Detroit Publishing Company Collection
    Images in this collection (25,000 negatives, 20,000 photographic prints, 2,900 transparencies, 1880s-1930) offer insight into the commerce in images at a scale of production completely different from that of the individual studio or commercial photographer.
  • Panoramic Photographs
    Panoramic photographs (4,200 photos, 1851-1991; bulk 1880-1930) typically have a length that is at least twice as long as the panorama's width, making them ideal for depicting wide expanses of landscape and large groups.
  • Stereographs/Card Photos
    Consisting of a pair of images, usually photographs, which are placed side by side, this collection (52,000 items in the organized collections, primarily 1870s-1940s) was acquired largely by copyright deposit.
  • Individually Cataloged Photographs
    Photographic prints and portfolios of great aesthetic, technical, or historic importance in this collection (approximately 3,500 photographs, 1842-present).
  • Fine Prints
    This collection includes the division's substantial holdings of nineteenth-century etchings (100,000 items, ca. 1480s-present).
  • Popular Graphic Arts
    Currier and Ives prints, as well as lithographs and chromolithography by other prominent firms such as Prang and Strobridge are prolifically represented in the collection.