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Hands Off the Picture Collection

By Peggy Roalf   Friday August 6, 2021

The headline and deck in the New York Times online article reads, “Hands Off the Library’s Picture Collection: Cornell, Spiegelman and Warhol browsed the famous collection of images in the New York Public Library. Now a century of serendipitous discovery will come to an end if the collection is closed off to the public.” Above:Jessica Cline, the current head of the Picture Collection; photo: Gus Powell [@dirtywhitebucks] for The New York Times

Since 1915, this vast collection of images in every print medium has been a free, open source of info and inspiration to artists, photographers, writers, researchers, designers in all disciplines, and the creatively curious. Filed in open stacks, its 1.5 million items could be studied and borrowed—right, taken home—by anyone with a library card. Although it's not clear in the NYTimes article, you can still go to the main research branch at 476 Fifth Ave, Room 100 with your library card and borrow up to 60 pictures. Info

“When the production designers of ‘Mad Men’ needed to know what a shopping bag looked like in 1950, they came here,” said Joshua Chuang, the senior curator of photography at the library. “I think of this as the most radical access to secreted layers of visual culture.”

Now the library administration has decided that the collection will be archived off-site, and available only by specific item request. “Either it is ephemera and doesn’t belong in a research library, or else it is an archive that should be preserved,” William P. Kelly, director of the research libraries, said in an interview. “We’re trying to move it from being an outlier and satellite to being an integral part of the collection.”

These days, in a Google search for images on the internet, an algorithm spits out the most popular choices in a self-reinforcing stream of predictability. At the Picture Collection, the quirks of human choice dictate what you see. “It’s the high and the low side by side that’s so incredible,” Chuang said. “It has a kind of messy purity about it.” Read the article here  

Certainly another casualty of shrinking budgets for education and cultural enrichment. So I reached out to DART subscribers to get their take.

In a phone conversation, David Sandlin said: When I first came to New York I used the Picture Collection from time to time. It’s a great resource because it’s like browsing a dictionary—you find stuff by accident that you didn’t expect, Once I found a photo of born-again Baptist snake handlers, in a circle with some snake,s that I used to make some drawings from. There is so much information, and the image quality is very high. 

I would also encourage artists looking for resource and inspiration to check out the NYPL Print Collection [which includes close to 200,000 original prints, ranging from woodcuts, engravings, etchings, lithographs, and screenprints]. There I discovered 100 Aspects of the Moon by Yoshi Toshi, an Edo period series of wood block prints, which fed into the long-term project I’m working on now. 

But I hope the Library keeps the Print Collection open without reservation—it’s important for artists to have a physical interaction with these resources.

 

David Sandlin’s current work, 76 Manifestations of American Destiny [above], which was funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, consists of six books, each with 13 double-spread prints, in accordion binding. The books are available at Booklyn. —David Sandlin @david_sandlin

 

 

 

Carol Fabricatore wrote, 

I have very fond memories of going to the New York Public Library Picture Collection as a young illustrator. I could always find the most obscure, interesting photos on any subject. I was always so happy to have made the time to get there and riffle through the folders in the open stacks. 

When you opened a new folder, the fragrance of the old photos mounted on dog-eared paper billowed out. It was a comforting sensation. There was always the thrill and anticipation of looking through each folder and hoping you would find unexpected jewels that would inspire and push your ideas to further your work.  

I always encourage my students to use this collection, not only for the experience, but to see the vast holdings and depth of subject matter. It’s very sad that the public won’t have immediate access to it once it’s shut down. Photos on the internet and google searches are something everyone does, with the most popular photos coming up again and again. Without access to the New York Public Library Picture Collection, students and professionals will have to work even harder to find unusual image reference materials. —Carol Fabricatore @cfabricator

  

 

Sergio Baradat emailed, 

It was a little sad to see that this old NY institution is closing. I used the picture library for years and years, that is until I started using Google search when I was in a pinch. This served the purpose of finding an image right off the bat. What the Picture Collection had was the possibility of a chance discovery of an image that you were not originally seeking, and this would take the project into a new unforeseen direction. This was exciting—and  cannot be replaced. I do hope they keep it. A whole new generation of artists can return to an analog way of looking and discovering. —Sergio Baradat @sergiobaradatart

 

 

Lauren Simkin Berke wrote,

I started working as an illustrator in the early 2000s at a time when it was just becoming possible to do image searches online, and that combined with my building of a personal reference library has meant I have not accessed this particular collection. That being said, this is clearly a tremendous loss for many illustrators. I have friends who used this collection as their primary image reference source for many years. Photo above: Lauren Simkion Berke's picture collection

While it is very sad the NYPL is planning to shut down the Picture Collection (I assume there is an intent to fully digitize, as the current digital version is only partial), it is not terribly surprising. It has lasted longer than many other similar collections. I expect it is accessed less and less, given all the ways people are currently finding reference material. When my research goes beyond what I can access on my own, I end up most often looking at material in NYPL's Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. 

I have folders of images from what I believe was the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum's picture collection, found at Materials for the Arts in 2007, and I have a large tub of images from the decommissioned image collection of the Carnegie Library of PIttsburgh, acquired at the Center for Creative Reuse around 2014 or so. I have used some of these materials in art pieces themselves, and others I have used as reference. I hope NYPL, once they have fully digitized the collection, if they do not intend to keep them off site, plans to donate the images to similar organizations, so that artists can have access to them, to give them a new life. —Lauren Simkin Berke @lsberke

 

J

Jason Fulford, who posted the news on Instagram, included this info for anyone who would like to petition the New York Public Library to keep the Picture Collection readily accessible:

If you want to help, here are 3 simple things you can do:
1. Write a comment on the New York Times article in support of keeping the collection circulating, browsable, and open to the public.
2. Write a letter to Tony Marx, president of the NYPL, saying the same. email: president@nypl.org
Or maybe better, send a physical letter to:
Tony Marx
NYPL
476 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
3. Post about this on social media and tag @nypl —Jason Fulford @mushroom_collector

This just in from 10x10 Photobooks
who have made it easy to protest. You can sign their online petition to keep the Picture Collection open here

 

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