The Department of Preparation: Thomas Smillie’s Photographic Survey of the Smithsonian (1890–1913)

When Thomas William Smillie (1843–1917) was designated “custodian” of the Smithsonian Institution’s photographic “specimens” in 1896 — a position we might now call curator of photography — it was the first such appointment at any museum in the United States, and perhaps in the world. Until his death, the Scottish-born chemist would dedicate his life to building and presenting the Smithsonian’s collections, whose far-flung gamut, as Merry Foresta described it, included such categories as “ethnological and archaeological, lithological, mineralogical, ornithological, metallurgical, and perhaps the most enticing category of all, miscellaneous.”

Though a scientist by training, Smillie did not confine his curatorial remit to technical illustrations. He worked with Alfred Stieglitz, for instance, to arrange the purchase of a group of important Pictorialist and Photo-Secessionist photos. In an annual report to the Smithsonian, Smillie stated his strong interest in amateur work, arguing that professional photography, being more bound by convention, often “affords less opportunity for originality and progress.”

Smillie’s CV is a constellation of firsts. As the first official photographer at the Smithsonian (appointed in 1870), he traveled to Wadesboro, North Carolina, to observe a total solar eclipse, using telescope-mounted cameras to capture a set of truly awe-inspiring shots: the delicate corona of the sun against the twin voids of space and the light-annihilating moon. Smillie also started the Smithsonian’s collection of photographic devices — paying $23 for daguerreotype equipment used by Samuel Morse — and his purchase of a selection from the 1896 Washington Salon is considered the earliest known acquisition of art photography by a museum. He was notable, too, for mentoring a number of prominent women photographers, such as Frances Benjamin Johnston, who would later become much in demand for her portrait work, and Louisa Bernie Gallaher, who became an expert in photomicrography at the Smithsonian but whose work has often been incorrectly contributed to Smillie until recent attempts to correct the record.

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As well as accompanying scientific expeditions and curating the work of other photographers, Smillie also set out to document the extent of the Smithsonian’s holdings, from taxidermied animals to Marshallese navigation charts. The cyanotype format he chose for printing — which had the advantages of low cost and relative simplicity — gives his work a sea-soaked serenity and lends even the most prosaic objects a certain luxurious allure.

One of the most curious aspects of Smillie’s photographic survey of the Smithsonian is that it encompasses what would normally be the almost invisible accoutrements of museological storage and display: showcases, racks, shelves, chests with parts pulled out and piled up before paper backdrops into oddly modish assemblages. In one such image, a single drawer is positioned delicately on a clock-draped stool, looking for all the world like a pensive sitter. Smillie was also known for taking photographs of letters, documents, and books, whether to make a personal copy of useful information or to preserve an important object in case of damage or disaster. Indeed, in a curious sort of mise-en-abîme, Smillie even had a penchant for taking photographs of photographs (is that one of Smillie’s own eclipse pictures that catches the viewer’s attention at the bottom of a display case?). In these and other images, we see his broad view of the medium’s potential: an indispensable tool and a mode of creative expression whose historical antecedents and chemical underpinnings deserved careful study and preservation lest they be forgotten.

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