• The Picture Collection

    On the third floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library on 5th Avenue at 40th Street are housed 1.29 million prints, postcards, posters, and images carefully clipped from books and magazines. Organized by a complex cataloguing system of over 12,000 subject headings, it is the largest circulating picture library in the world.

    Since its inception in 1915, The Picture Collection has been an important resource for writers, historians, artists, filmmakers, designers, and advertising agencies. Diego Rivera, who made use of it for his Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads” (1934), noted that the scope of this image archive might go on to shape contemporary visions of America—suggesting that today’s “accidents” might be the basis for tomorrow’s collective understanding. Andy Warhol was also a frequent user of the collection,
    with a particular interest in advertising images—many of which were never returned.

    The Picture Collection’s content and categories follow a crude algorithm, reactive to the happenstance of image donations over time, the interests of librarians, and the specific requests of library users. The collection serves as a space where images that are historically inscribed and validated exist beside those that are not. This flattening of hierarchies positions generic advertising pictures next to photographs by Weegee or Steichen, and a Rauschenberg or Malevich reproduction next to a travel postcard or an anonymous artist’s work.

    Romana Javitz, head of the collection from 1929 to 1968, recruited 40 artists through the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s to help clip, cull, and catalogue the collection. In the 1940s, Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration donated nearly 40,000 photographic prints to the collection, concerned for the images’ safety in the face of a Congress that might disapprove of their content. Only during the mid-1990s were these pictures, including works by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, removed from The Picture Collection’s public folders and placed under the protection of the Division of Arts, Prints and Photographs, in direct response to rising market prices for the artists.

    In The Picture Collection (2013), Taryn Simon highlights the impulse to archive and organize visual information, and points to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image gathering. Simon sees this extensive archive of images as a precursor to Internet search engines. Such an unlikely futurity in the past is at the core of The Picture Collection. The digital is foreshadowed in the analog, at the same time that history—its classifications, its contents—seems the stuff of projection.