Library of Congress Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited Washington, DC earlier this month to drop off a portfolio of my photo project, “The Value of a Dolllar,” at the Library of Congress. They acquired it a couple of months ago, and due to a busy schedule and some production difficulties, (inks dry up like mad in New Mexico’s 10% humidity), I hadn’t gotten the work to them yet. As it happened, by the time I was ready to drop it off with the local Taos fedex guys, I’d already booked a short trip back to NYC for some meetings. I was planning to spend one day at the Jersey Shore with my family, playing mini-golf and ogling the hotties, but I realized that if I shifted things around, I could take the train down to DC to deliver the work in person. Good call.

I hopped on a morning Amtrak from Penn Station in early August, well-caffeinated, and watched the I-95 corridor fly by while I worked on my laptop. Lots of trees, in case you were wondering. It was a breeze of a trip, and all was well until I hopped into a cab in the warm drizzle outside DC’s Union Station. I figured all I had do was say, “Library of Congress, please,” like some character in a John Grisham flick. Maybe the cabbie’s name would be Smitty. Then, the acerbic, stogie-smoking driver, would say, “You got it, Mister. We’ll be there in a jiffy, ” and off we would go. What he said in real life was, “Which building?” I stammered, “Are you joking?,” looked around for the hidden camera, slowly realized he was serious, then fumbled around my bag for anything resembling a specific address. Awesome. Ultimately, we figured it out, but not before I ended up looking like a complete tool.

I made it to the Madison Building in time, barely, and found myself face to face with a metal detector and a sign that said PLACE ALL BELONGINGS IN THE GRAY TUB. Looking around, ever the observant photographer, I saw no grey tubs. When I asked the security guard about it, he laughed at my naiveté, and said, “We don’t have those anymore.” Oh. Right. Because America’s broke. Sure. So I hopped in an elevator to the third floor, and began the long march to the Prints and Photographs division. I’d been hauling the portfolio box, by hand, from Taos to Albuquerque to Houston to Newark to New York to DC, so by that point, I just wanted the freaking thing out of my possession. But this being a public building, and a monumentally huge one at that, the halls just kept going. And going. All that florescent lighting. Makes me sleepy just thinking about it.

Thankfully, I arrived on time, and after the gruff lady at the front desk called back to the office, I was assured they’d take the portfolio off my hands in a few minutes. I was there to meet with Verna Curtis, the curator who led the acquisition team. While waiting, I peeked around a bit, and was surprised to find that it looks and functions kind of like…a library. Big shock, right? For those of you who don’t know, the entire collection is accessible to the public. There are rules, of course, but if followed, anyone can come in and “check out” vintage or contemporary prints from the collection, for research, or the simple pleasure of looking. Unlike a museum, which puts work on the wall for the masses, or tucks it away in the archives forever, this is a totally different viewing experience. Designed to be personal. Kind of refreshing.

Ms. Curtis arrived shortly, and led me back to the Vault. I dropped the box down theatrically, glad it was no longer mine to obsess about. Of course, there was a big bucket of white gloves right there, this being an archive, so I showed her the prints, along with her colleague Carol Johnson. Afterwards, I felt a surge of relief when Ms Curtis wheeled the box away in a pushcart. Forever. Business complete, I turned to a stack of photographs on the table. Ms. Curtis, Ms. Johnson, and another colleague, Beverly Brannan, had chosen a few pieces from the collection they thought I might like to see. Very thoughtful. As we began discussing the prints, and the collection in general, I started to take a bunch of notes, and before I knew it, we were doing an impromptu interview for you, the APE audience. Perhaps they’ll make a real journalist of me yet.

Together, the three curators enlightened me about how the institution works. I was honest, and admitted that despite the honor of now being included in the collection, I was kind of ignorant as to it’s mission and function. It seemed the better course than trying to fake it with in a room full of experts. They graciously explained that the collection began as Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, which was given to Congress in 1802. (Way to go, T-Jeff.) The original building was torched by the British in the War of 1812, and a new building was erected in 1898. (Hence the Jefferson building, right across the street)

So the Library was given to Congress, which is responsible for funding, and it has a mission to serve the members of Congress as well. The ladies explained that their goal, as curators, is to identify pressing political and social issues within American culture, almost like cultural anthropologists, and then to collect artwork that reflects those issues. I’m not sure any other curatorial team has the same mandate. At first, the work represents the Zeitgeist of the present, and then it slowly seeps into history. They said that in the late 80’s/early 90’s, they collected work about AIDS, and then of course 9/11 as well. In order to acquire my project, they first had to agree that food was a subject worthy of attention. Body issues, which they described as relating to obesity, aging, youth, Anorexia and Bulimia, is another issue that is currently the focus of collection.

Ms Curtis explained that beyond the grand topic, they seek work that delivers “subject, content and execution.” They’re interested in photographs that, “are not entirely illustrative and documentary, but have artistic merit as well…where the subject is key to our time.” It was also explained that members of Congress are meant to come by to look at work to help them get a better understanding of particular issues. Which sounds pretty cool in theory. But when I mentioned that to my friend Andreas at lunch, he laughed and conjured the visual of Mitch McConnell taking a break out of his busy day to look at some… Ah-rt. I do love me some, Ah-rt. Especially them velvet Elvises. Well played, Andreas.

Back to the Vault. The curators had brought out three groups of work for me to see. The first, by an artist Robert Coppola, was a series of small-scale injket prints of tobacco farms in Connecticut that were presented in a cigar box. It was a one of a kind object, and had a poetic feel to it. We also looked at a few gorgeous gelatin silver prints by Graciela Iturbide, which were a gift from the Mexican government back in 1998. Iturbe’s prints were striking, in a high-contrast, agressive sort of way. One image, which I’d seen reproduced before, was of an Indigenous woman tearing apart an animal in a market, a knife stuck between her teeth. Another, which I really loved, depicted an Indigenous woman, seen from behind, walking alone through the low mountains of the Sonoran desert, holding a Boom Box. Awesome. Fab Five Freddy would be proud. The entire scene looked like it could have taken place three hundred years ago, save for that one fantastic temporal reference.

The curators also mentioned that they believe it’s important for the Library of Congress to be relevant in the 21st Century. Many people see it as a dusty part of history, I was told, which is not a fair assessment of the living, evolving institution. They pointed out that the LoC was the first major archive to have a Flickr page, and that countless historical images have been tagged by the populace, crowd-sourcing elements of American history. They also have the entire 170,000 FSA archive accessible online, as they started the scanning process 15 years ago. They’re currently working with a new group of photographers and writers, Facing Change, to create a contemporary version of the FSA collection.

We finished up our visit looking at a few newly-acquired prints by Jen Davis, who uses herself as a subject of self-portraiture. I’ll be as careful as a I can with my language here, as Ms. Davis is a larger woman who uses her self-portraiture as a way of looking at the aforementioned “Body Issues.” It would be condescending to call the photographs brave, but clearly we’re not used to seeing self-portraits of people who look like Ms. Davis. If I had a dollar for every 20-something cutie that takes naked pictures of herself, I’d buy lunch for everyone reading this. But of course that’s the point. Since she’s an intelligent and talented artist, Ms. Davis is capable of making images that are delicate and subtle as they plumb a variety of themes related to being big in a world obsessed with unrealistic visions of retouched beauty. (I think everyone can relate. I certainly felt self-conscious on the beach in SoCal last month next to all those bronzed, slab-shouldered surfers with hair like Farrah Fawcett. Yes, I mean the guys…)

In one photo, Ms. Davis is at the beach with some friends, well-covered, sitting on a beach towel with an attractive friend in a bikini. Uncomfortable. In another, she’s in line, her back turned, at a hamburger stand at a State Fair or carnival. Corndog, anyone? Churro? Finally, I saw a print of Ms. Davis, slightly turned away, eating a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream, like a secret, shameful midnight snack. All the prints were about 20×30, and powerful at scale. Anyone who’s read my previous articles knows I can be liberal with criticism, and prone to verbosity, but this work is hard to talk about. And given that the issues themselves are difficult to discuss in a country with an Obesity and Diabetes epidemic, I think Ms. Davis’ work succeeds on both the literal and metaphorical level. Great stuff.

From there, I took my leave, and trundled down the eternally long hallway to the exit. I stopped to give a shout out to the statue of James Madison, (What up, J-Mad? How YOU doin’?) read a few of his inspirational quotes on the wall, and then headed out into the city. I hadn’t been to this part of DC since I was a child, so it was like visiting for the first time. Lots of big white Classical buildings with ornate sculptures on top, and plenty of quotes incised on the structures as well. Some serious early 19th Century power architecture. I can see the thought process. Hey guys, let’s build a bunch of big, expensive buildings like the Greeks and Romans did, and people will know we’re a real country. Kind of like the Chinese are doing today with the Shanghai skyline. Expect now it’s the future, man.

I walked across the Mall, basically a long, narrow park with duck pond, and headed up the street to the National Gallery of Art, where I spent the rest of my day. I’ve gone on record, several times, discussing how much I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Hard as it is for me to fathom, the National Gallery is pretty close to it’s equal. And it’s free. That’s right. Free. You walk in, let the dude at the front look into your purse (or manbag), and then he says “Have a nice day.” That’s it. No money changes hands. How cool is that? Better check it out soon, as our broke-as-a-joke status as a nation will probably mean they start charging for this stuff any day now. As to the art, it’s indescribably good. (Yeah, tough adjective from a guy who’s trying to describe things.)

First thing to share: the museum is huge. Two-separate-buildings-with-an-underground-tunnel-in-between kind of huge. It’s the sort of place where you stare at the map for a few minutes, then say “Fuck it” and just wander around. So rather than trying to share my non-linear, Pacman like wanderings, I’ll just give some highlights. And there were many, as the collection of work on display here is truly remarkable. All you East Coast peoples, pay attention. Take a day and go visit. As long as your Amtrak doesn’t break down, which of course mine did on the way home, (more later) it will be an easy day, well worth it.

After spending time with some Rembrandts, because he’s the Man, I wandered into the German Renaissance section. I’ve seen a lot of art in my day, in many of the world’s best museums, but I hadn’t seen this before. The 16th Century portraits of probably-important-in-their-day German people were fantastic. I saw one, “Portrait of a Woman,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1522) that looked just like a Hellen Van Meene photo I’d seen at MOPA in San Diego last month. Head slightly turned, with an intense green background and strong shadow contrasting with her shocking red hair, it was so modern. Lifelike too. Accompanied by the equally creatively titled “Portrait of a Man,” it definitely gave me new perspective on the contemporary German portrait style. Many of the paintings I saw from that era, in fact, appeared to be the root of the stone-faced, unemotional, sharp and dry style made famous by Thomas Ruff. (BTW, I recently saw a Thomas Struth portrait of Gerhard Richter, also at MOPA, that was so self-serious I laughed out loud. We want the money, Lebowski.) Looking at portraits by Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, I noted that if one simply changed out the clothing, the German sitters could be straight out of the 21st C.

Downstairs, I stumbled upon the innocuously titled “Chester Dale” Collection. Wow. I’m excited just reading that. Wait, who? Sarcasm aside, the man knew what he was buying. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better grouping of late 19th Century/Early 20th Century European Painting. Picasso, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Braque, Renoir, Modigliani, Cézanne, Matisse, Touluse-Lautrec, Corot…and more. A diptych of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral,” from 1894 was mesmerizing, and ought to be required viewing for every photographer. The manner in which light leads to color, and color to expressionism was laid out like a cheat sheet in a pop-quiz. Obvious but enlightening. Not to mention beautiful.

Picasso, as is often the case, was the standout. I saw two paintings, “The Lovers,” and “Classical Head,” from 1923 and 1922, respectively, that were in an almost-earnest, super classical style that I’d not seen from him before. And “Two Youths,” from 1906, featured two naked boys, around 10 years old, rendered in pale pastel orange hues. It was beautiful and haunting, and made me question some of the things I wrote about Jock Sturges last year. Not that I’m a flip-flopper, heaven forbid, but I did ask myself why it was OK for Picasso to work with such subjects, but not JS.

Soon enough, in another part of the museum, I found myself in a room with a sequence of 19th Century Gilbert Stuart portraits of the First five Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison & Monroe. (Old white men, of course) Basking in their aura of power, I thought: this is their town. I’m just visiting. They lived and breathed, they created this country, and now I’m walking around, enjoying the multi-billion dollar art collection that sprung up in their name. That was one thing I enjoyed about DC, the sense that the history of the US is alive, and that the future has not yet been written. (Perhaps I’m overly optimistic on that one.) Wherever you go, you see frumpy, serious looking people in power ties and pant suits, rushing off to solve one problem or another.

After passing the underground waterfall in the tunnel between the buildings, I found myself in the Modern wing. As you can imagine, my brain was pretty well pickled by then, but I did wander through a thorough and well curated collection of late 20th Century painting and sculpture. (No photos in sight. But the Jasper Johns Target painting and Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” are dynamite.) I didn’t see a single photograph until the end of my visit, if you can believe it. A Lewis Baltz show had just closed, and there were no photographs mixed in with any of the gallery installations I saw, until I found a tiny room off in a corner that had two Friedlanders and a Robert Cumming. I went from not remembering who Cumming was to being a big fan in a couple of weeks, after seeing his work in LA too. The show was about the alphabet, like the curators were watching too much Sesame Street, but as they were the only photographs I could find, I wasn’t going to be too picky.

Nam June Paik, considered the Godfather of video art, had a video exhibition tucked away in the top floor Tower. Given that so many photographers are now nascent video artists, this is a show to see. One piece, called “Three eggs,” 1975-82, had an old school video camera trained on a white egg, then an old, low-res video monitor of the video feed of the egg in real time, and then a real egg sitting on black velvet inside the same type of monitor that had the glass popped out. Penetrating and quiet, it was the epitome of 20th C Zen. The whole room, which had 30 foot ceilings, also had multiple, manipulated versions of a video feed of a candle, flickering huge. At first I thought it was kind of boring, but as I was leaving, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a real candle, on a stand, with a video camera trained on it. I doubled back, and saw that the set up was the basis of all the images around me. Lots of visual noise, all stemming from the silent, lonely candle, slowly melting away. Genius. I asked the security guard how often they change out the candle, and he said every day. Every day, someone lights a new candle and lets it burn itself down, in front of no one’s eye but the camera. (I also asked the guard his opinion of the piece. “It’s OK for me.”)

From there, I headed out into the DC drizzle and haze, and walked back around the Capitol building to Union Station for an evening train to NYC. Thoroughly exhausted, I lined up at the gate behind some tow-headed doofus from the Huntsman campaign who wouldn’t stop chattering into his Blackberry while finger-dancing on his Ipad. Soon enough, the train departed, and I was on my way North, ready to sign up as Amtrak’s Number 1 Fan. Until the power went dead as we sat in Baltimore’s Downtown train station. Dead as in dead. As in, not working, not planning to work, figure something else out. I happened to notice, on my way South earlier in the day, that the train tracks cut right through the boarded up B-more neighborhoods so grittly depicted in “The Wire.” So close you could touch them. And they look even bleaker in real life, if you can believe it. So I was not particularly happy about being stuck in downtown Baltimore for the night. But these things have a way of working themselves out, and my train companions and soon I bum-rushed the next Acela high speed number. I even got a seat and free Wi-f, and was back in NYC in no time. I saw some great work there too, of course, but that’s another story for a different day.

There Are 19 Comments On This Article.

  1. Denise Sfraga

    Thanks for that Jonathan! In 1996, I was the Director of Photography of Civilization magazine – the now defunct magazine of the Library of Congress. I spent countless hours looking at photographs at the Library finding many wonderful portfolios to reproduce in the magazine. Sad that the magazine didn’t make it – but luckily the library is still open to the public. Anyone who is interested in photography – I highly suggest taking a trip to DC to see the collection. When I would visit, I was like a kid in a candy store. It’s FREE and as Jonathan mentions, has a wealth of amazing photographs in their collection that you can actually hold in your hands (as long as you’re wearing your white gloves which I was scolded for not doing my first visit!). It’s not often can we literally hold and feel photographs as much anymore… the trip by train is relatively quick and easy to get to the building from the train station. Have fun!

    • Thanks so much sharing this information, Denise. I think that most photographers would really benefit from the chance to sit down, one-on-one, with great work from the collection.

  2. Very refreshing text. The general tone made me go through it all. I’m french and had a glimpse of the US studying there for one year recently – enjoyed the Greyhound going to LA to attend an APA meeting, actually.
    Is there really no one using the Library of Congress, or the National Gallery of Art? Or only tourists? This is heartbreaking.
    Thanks for the story anyway. Good to have a thoughtful, qualitative analysis on pictures to read.

    • Hi Paul,
      I certainly saw a tremendous contingent of tourists at the National Gallery, including many from Russia and China. But I wouldn’t be able to speculate as to whether only tourists are frequenting these terrific institutions. I try to encourage my fellow photographers to get out and look at the best art possible, because I think it naturally improves our vision and sense of what’s possible. So glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the compliments.

  3. This piece is FANTASTIC. Your writing is absolutely intriguing – I could literally picture your meeting with the three curators. Thanks for sharing Jen Davis’ work, and for sharing yours, really great!!

    • Many thanks, Christine. So glad the story was visually evocative. It’s certainly a goal of mine. As to Jen Davis’ work, it is terrific, and Ms. Davis was kind enough to offer us the jpeg we published.

  4. Absolutely love Jen’s self-portrsits.
    So thoughtful, so relevant, so encapsulates modern america. Perfect for this collection.

  5. Refreshing and alluring read of a journey that only a very small percentage will take compared to the depth and breadth of our nation. Well done read! I think this is your best to date and I guess I will be expecting more. hehe.

    I love the tour, like we were walking together throughout the day. I wouldn’t worry too much about being verbose though, not until you start wearing a skirt accompanied by various euphemisms. JMHThoughts.

    • Hi Ed,
      The best to date? Thanks, that’s high praise. I’ll take that into consideration as future stories develop. We do have a New York article in the works. Hope you’re well.

      • Thank You I am getting there, getting the walking down is a challenge but improved daily. I am looking forward to NY article. I know you will do well!

        Next time you are out this way let me know. We’ll do luch and a musem tour.

  6. Wonderful and adventuresome piece, Jonathan. And congrats on your work being acquired!