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NMAH Photographic History Collection

Smithsonian Staff


The Photographic History Collection (PHC) represents the history of the medium of photography. The PHC holds the work of over 2000 identified photographers and studios, about 200,000 photographs, about 15,000 cameras, pieces of apparatus, studio equipment and sensitized materials. The scope of the collection spans from daguerreotypes to digital and includes unidentified to well-known photographers, international and United States-centered objects, and familiar and experimental photographic formats.

The Photographic History Collection, now at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, was founded in 1896. The PHC was established by Thomas Smillie, the Smithsonian's first official photographer. Smillie established two photography collections ---the PHC and the Photo Lab which is now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and he ran them simultaneously until his death in 1917. 

The PHC uses the Smithsonian Learning Lab as a place to offer a view into the collection's rich and diverse holdings. What is presented here online is not the entire Photographic History Collection. This digital space is a work in progress. We started publishing to the Learning Lab in February 2020 and are adding and improving as quickly as we can.

How to use the Smithsonian Learning Lab to discover PHC collections. 

  • To see a list of photographer and maker names, go here [link to come].
  • In the Learning Lab, the PHC's collections are organized into four groups: Photographer, Format/Process, Subject, and Cameras and Apparatus.
  • The Learning Lab collection only contains objects that have images attached to digital records. There may be additional objects and record information found at
  • The Learning Lab collection may only contain a sampling of images if the collection is substantial. Additional materials may be found at
  • Email us if you are looking for something specific.
  • Tip, use the tool that allows the user to see the collections alphabetically.

Collection Staff:  Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator


General Keywords: history of photography, photographic history, photographer, photographers, portraits, landscapes, cameras, photographic equipment, studio equipment, fine art photography, experimental photography, digital photography, patent models, photographic studio, ephemera, documents, cinema history, early motion picture, photojournalism, amateur photography, photography exhibitions, commercial photography

Photographic keywords: daguerreotype, calotype, salted paper print, gelatin silver print, tintype, ferrotype, ambrotype, collodion on glass, glass plate negative, platinum print, platinum-palladium print, photographs on fabric, cyanotype, cased images, ivorytype, stereoview, waxed paper negative, hologram, lenticular, Kromograms, press print, photo jewelry, stanhope, micro photography

Additional research resources: In December 2019, research resources that had been held in the division were distributed to other Smithsonian units. The "Personality Files" that contained biographies, obituaries, exhibition announcements, and such were absorbed by the Smithsonian Library NPG/AA branch; the list of subjects can be found here [link to come]. The "Archives Reference Files" that contained information about companies, products, and occasionally processes, were absorbed into the trade literature collection at the National Museum of American History branch of the Smithsonian Library. The Science Service images and files, the divisions's exhibition history files, personal files, correspondence files, and more can be found at the Smithsonian Archives.

NMAH Photographic History Collection's collections


Photographer: von Martens, Friederich

<p>The Friederich von Martens collection at the NMAH Photographic History Department includes some of the earliest panoramic photographs ever taken.  The collection is composed of thirty-eight albumen photographs taken with a panoramic camera he built in the mid-nineteenth century. Included in the collection is a set of mechanical drawings, patent information and personal correspondace related to von Martens panoramic camera and photographs. Many of the photographs in this collection are of Paris in the mid 1800s. There are also nature studies and photographs of drawings/paintings.</p> <p>Keywords: Panoramic photography, Paris, nature studies</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Christmas #nmahphc

NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: American Flags #nmahphc

<p><br>This is an assortment of photographs from the Photographic History Collection of photographs and photographic objects that include an American flag.<br></p> <p></p> <p>For additional images, search<br></p> <p></p> <p>Keywords (subject): American flag, U.S. flag, Old Glory, Star Spangled Banner, parade, protest, march, veteran, military, political rally, grave, activism, patriotism, Fourth of July parade, 4th of July, decoration, September 11, 2001, 9/11</p> <p></p> <p>Keywords (photography): tintype, ambrotype, real photo postcard, documentary photography, photojournalism, gelatin silver print, color photography, press print, stereograph, stereoview</p> <p></p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Photographer: Zalesky, Roy Joseph #nmahphc

<p>This is an assortment of photographs, ephemera and camera equipment from the Photographic History Collection created and used by photojournalist Roy Joseph Zalesky. Photographs date from the 1980s and 1990s and mostly depict Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina.<br></p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p>Keywords: photojournalism, photojournalist, reportage, gelatin silver prints, documentary photography, street photography, store front windows, downtown, city life, agricultural worker, farmer, shopping, cafe, dinner, eating</p> <p><br></p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Backyards #nmahphc

<p><br>This is an assortment of photographs from the Photographic History Collection related to backyards.<br></p> <p>The definition of <em>backyard</em> is broadly defined for this Learning Lab collection, because backyards have not always been clearly defined in the  suburban sense of the word. The scope of images included here are photographs that could be side yards, perhaps fields behind a house, or other such spaces away from the front and most public side of a house.</p> <p></p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p></p> <p>Keywords (subject): yard, backyard, side yard, barn yard, fence, railing, clothes line, leisure activity, sports and games, baseball, music, playing, snow, garden, casual, horsing around, goofing off, being silly, hugs, friends, family, patio, well, trough, animals, pets, military uniform, horseshoes, gate</p> <p></p> <p>Keywords (photography): gelatin silver print, real photo postcard, fine art photography, documentary photography, snapshots, portraiture, glass plate negative, Janet Fries, Walter J. Hussey</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Format and Process: Daguerreotypes #nmahphc

<p>This is a small sampling of photographs, cameras, and apparatus related to daguerreotypes found in the Photographic History Collection.  There are also several short videos that demonstrate the making of daguerreotypes.<br></p> <p>Many daguerreotypes are portraits, including two by the Meade Brothers of <strong>Louis</strong>-<strong>Jacques</strong>-<strong>Mandé</strong><strong></strong> Daguerre. The PHC holds images of the Smithsonian's own Spencer Baird, Senators Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Henry Clay, and photographers Frederick Langenheim and Samuel Fitz are among other noted individuals. Particular collections include the transfer of cased images from the Anthropological Archives of Native Americans, the Warren Fox Kaynor case collection, John William Draper image and apparatus collection, and daguerreotypes made by African American daguerreotypist Augustus Washington. Many well-known makers are also represented.  Samuel F. B. Morse's camera, hand-crafted using the lens he brought back from Paris in 1839, was the first object cataloged for the collection.  Two contemporary daguerreotypists include Jerry Spigoli's image of President Obama's Inauguration and Mike Robinson's daguerreotype of the Daguerre memorial.</p> <p>For additional information search or contact the division.</p> <p><br></p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Self Portraits and Selfies #nmahphc

<p>This is a sampling of photographic self-portraits. <br></p> <p>Professional and amateur photographers have been turning the camera on themselves since photography started.  There are a number of strategies and tools that professional and amateur photographers have used, including mirrors, cable releases, timing devices, and simply turning the camera around at arm's length.  Cell phones now allow almost effortless self-portraits, known as "selfies."  <br></p> <p>Keywords: self-portrait, self portrait, selfie, bulb release, string release, timed portrait, cable release, reflection in mirror</p> <p>For additional images, search at</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Title: Comedy and Humor #nmahphc

<p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection related to comedy (attempted, performed) and humor (happens, experienced). This Learning Lab consists mostly of four themes:<br></p> <ol><li>Professionals who make others laugh (comedians, stand-up comics, actors, writers, vaudevillians),</li><li>People laughing or sharing a joke,</li><li>Photographs in which the title or subject of those depicted is related to humor, being funny or silly,</li><li>Clowns.</li></ol> <p>For additional objects, search</p> <p>Keywords: humor, comedy, funny, comedienne, comedian, funny people, stand-up comedy, performance, stage, show, clothes, clown, clowning around, make-up, costume, skit, <em>The Laughing Husband</em>, <em>Funny Business</em>, vaudeville, colorful personality</p> <p>Keywords (people): Imogene Coca, Phyllis Diller, Sid Cesear, Bob Hope, Ed Wynn, Bert Lahr, Charlie Chaplin, Robert Klein, Bing Crosby, Henny Youngman, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, George McGovern, Thomas Eagleton, Sargent Shriver, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, President and Mrs. William Clinton, Palidor the Clown</p> <p>Keywords (photography): press print, film still, portrait, gelatin silver print, toned print, real photo postcard, mounted photograph, snapshot</p> <p><br></p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Buses and Bus stops #nmahphc

<p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection that relates to bus and bus stops.<br></p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p>Keywords (subject): bus, bus stop, interior, exterior, destination indicator, transportation, buses designed to live in, hippie buses, public transportation, segregation, waiting for a bus, rider, Greyhound, city bus, Ken Kesey, Further, country music, music industry, bands, music park, Atlanta, San Francisco, American Southwest, New Mexico, commuter, tourists</p> <p>Keywords (photography): Mark James Powers, Lisa Law, Roy Zalesky, Henry Horenstein, color photography, gelatin silver print, photojournalism, fine art photography, documentary photography, reportage</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Art #nmahphc

<p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection that depict art related activities, art galleries, displays, artists at work, and photographs of paintings and sculptures. This Learning Lab collection is divided into four categories: </p> <ul><li>artists at work</li><li>portraits of artists</li><li>art on display</li><li>photographs of art objects</li></ul> <p>There are separate Learning Lab collections for <em><strong>Portraits of Photographers</strong></em> and <em><strong>Photographers at Work</strong></em>.</p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p>Keywords<em>:</em></p> <p>See also the Learning Lab collection <em><strong>Museums</strong></em> for photographs of exhibitions and installations in museums, museum buildings, museum education, and other museum activities. For Smithsonian related activities, search and</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Formats and Processes: Cartes-de-visite #nmahphc

<p>This is a selection of cartes-de-visite from the Photographic History Collection.<br></p> <p>The sitters and photographers in this Learning Lab collection are well-known, lesser known, and unidentified. There are a number of photographs that are not portraits, including a stereoview of a cartes-de-visite studio.</p> <p>Learning Lab collections, <em><a href="">Seville CDV Collection</a></em> and <em></em><a href=""><em>Photo Albums</em></a> contain additional cartes-de-visite.</p> <p>For additional collections, search</p> <p>Keywords: CDV, carte de visite, cartes de visite, portraiture, studio portrait, collectible photography, celebrity photography</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Civil War Photography: Seville CDV Collection #nmahphc

<p>This collection of cartes-de-visite portraits of Union soldiers is the Seville collection in the National Museum of American History’s Photographic History Collection. The collection was donated in 1931 by Smithsonian employee Marian Wells Seville, a Smithsonian library cataloger and assistant. Seville's father, Captain William P. Seville, served with the 1st Delaware Volunteers during the Civil War. Throughout the war, he obtained these photographs of the men with whom he served. Seville authored, <em><a href=",%20Delaware%20Volunteers:%20From%20the%20Commencement%22&f=false">The History of the First Regiment, Delaware Volunteers: From the Commencement of the “Three Month’s Service” to the Final Muster Out at the Close of the Rebellion,</a></em> in 1884. <br></p> <p>The biographies of nearly all the subjects in this collection are attached to the record. Follow the links to "more info" after clicking on each image.</p> <p>For more images, search</p> <p>Keywords: Civil War soldier, men in uniform, carte-de-visite, studio portraiture, mustache, military weapons, surgeon, surgeon-general., general, quartermaster, captain, heroics, Smithsonian history, women collectors, women donors, women librarians, use of photography</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection