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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; Sarah Oakman, Collections Manager; Mac Cosgrove-Davies, Volunteer


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


Subject: American Flags

<p>#nmahphc</p><p></p> <p>This is an assortment of photographs from the Photographic History Collection of photographs and photographic objects that include an American flag.</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

Subject: Books and Reading

<p>#nmahphc<br /></p> <p>This is an assortment of photographs from the Photographic History Collection of people reading, books, and libraries. </p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p>Keywords: read, reading, books, letters, magazines, journals, newspapers, library, libraries, bookshop, book store, librarian</p> <p></p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Musical Instruments

<p>#nmahphc</p><p></p> <p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection of people with musical instruments. This Learning Lab collection includes conductors, orchestras and bands. It includes professionals, amateurs, communities, school, and military associations. </p><p></p> <p>For additional images, search</p><p></p> <p>Keywords (subject): guitar, electric guitar, steel guitar, banjo, lute, mandolin, piano, piano forte, saxophone, trumpet, tuba, ukulele, harp, zither, drum, snare drum, drum kit, violin, fiddle, cello, bass, harmonica, squeeze box, harpsichord, dulcimer, clarinet, kazoo, marimba, tambourine, stringed instruments, brass instruments, woodwind instruments, concert, band, orchestra, music, musicians, performers, conductors, soloist, pianist, violinist, fiddler, sheet music, music stand, high school band, military band, all-women band, <em>Taps</em>, famous people, celebrity, folk music, community dance, classical music, entertainment, school performance, musical instruction, practice, performance, art made with musical instruments, musical instrument made with scrap metal, musical instruments depicted in artworks</p><p></p> <p>Keywords (photography): carte-de-visite, cabinet card, press print, portraiture, head shot, advertising, collectible, color carbro, gelatin silver print, fine art photography, documentary photography, snapshot, real photo postcard, stereoview, stereograph, digital photography, translucent composite, tintype, cyanotype, color photography, printing out process</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Buses and Bus stops

<p>#nmahphc</p> <p></p> <p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection that relates to bus and bus stops.</p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p></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></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: Backyards

<p>#nmahphc</p><p></p> <p>This is an assortment of photographs from the Photographic History Collection related to backyards.</p> <p>The definition of <em>backyard</em> is broad defined for this Learning Lab collection, because backyards have not always been clearly defined in the familiar, suburban sense of the word. The scope of images include 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

Subject: Native Americans BAE transfer

<p>#nmahphc</p><p></p> <p>This is a collection from the Photographic History Collection of portraits of Native Americans. These photographic objects were transferred in 1932 from the Bureau of American Ethnology (now part of the Anthropological Archive) to what is now the Photographic History Collection. They were among the first photographs collected for the Smithsonian Institution. </p><p></p> <p>For additional images, search</p><p></p> <p>Keywords: Smithsonian history, indigenous peoples, First Nation Peoples, portraiture, cased images, ambrotype, daguerreotype, tintype, Thomas M. Easterly, John H. Fitzgibbon, peace medal</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Title: Comedy and Humor

<p>#nmahphc</p> <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:</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: Dance

<p>#nmahphc</p> <p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection related to dance, dancers, and dancing.</p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p>Keywords (subject): dance, dancer, dancing, entertainment, folk dance, ballet, carnival, psychedelic, acid trip, burlesque, Dresden Dancing Dolls, strip tease, exotic dancer, Playboy Bunny, belly dance, ribbon dance, class, barre, ballroom, dance floor, Native American ceremonial dance, costume, tutu, slippers, human form, musculature, posture, pose, position, partner, gown, tights, dress, make-up, performance, stage, Kennedy Center Award, theatre, stage show, film set, Can-Can, Golden Gate Park, hippies, summer of love</p> <p>Keywords (people): Arthur Mitchell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Eleanor Powell, Gloria Govrin, Ben Marcus, Little Joe Gomez, Lisa Law, Allen Ginsberg, Elliot Erwitt, Tamara Toumanova, Lisa Law, Liza Minnelli, Ann Ford, Courtney Kennedy, Peter Basch, Blanche Oterson, M. Fokine, Ginger Rogers, Jane Powell, Roy Zalensky, Eadweard Muybridge, Diana Walker, Gene Kelly, Nikita Kruschev, Carl Mydans, Laura and Paul Foster, Quill, The Doll Family, Evelyn Nesbit, Rudolph Nureyev, Will Connell, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lisa Benitz, Lorraine Shelley, Alexandra Danilova, Jacques d'Ambroise, Michael Jackson</p> <p>Keywords (photography): gelatin silver print, press print, fine art photography, documentary photography, platinum print, color carbro, cyanotype, cigarette card album, zoopraxiscope, snapshot, color photography, glass plate negative, portraiture, action shot, dance photography</p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Subject: Art

<p>#nmahphc</p> <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><p></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></p> <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

Subject: Weddings

<p>#nmahphc</p> <p>This is a selection of photographs from the Photographic History Collection related to weddings.</p> <p>For additional images, search</p> <p>Keywords (subject): Wedding, marriage ceremony, church, gay rights, bride, groom, love, wedding dress, tuxedo, marriage clothes, wedding clothes, bouquet, flowers, tradition, anniversary, nontraditional wedding, wedding album, Tom Thumb and Lavania Warren, Leon and Sondra Einhorn, Victor Keppler, Lisa Law, Courtney Kennedy, Michael Kennedy, Ken Regan, Paul and Laura Foster, Mr. &amp; Mrs. Patrick O'Brien, David Eisenhower and Juile Nixon</p> <p>Keywords (photography): wedding album, portraiture, traditional photography, advertising, color photography, color carbro, gelatin silver print, press print, documentary photography, mutoscope poster, stereoview, genre scene, pictorialism, carte-de-visite, </p>
NMAH Photographic History Collection

Formats and Processes: Cartes-de-visite

<p>#nmahphc</p> <p>This is a selection of cartes-de-visite from the Photographic History Collection.</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

<p>#nmahphc</p> <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=";newbks=1&amp;newbks_redir=0&amp;dq=%22First%20Regiment%2C%20Delaware%20Volunteers%3A%20From%20the%20Commencement%22&amp;pg=PA1#v=onepage&amp;q=%22First%20Regiment,%20Delaware%20Volunteers:%20From%20the%20Commencement%22&amp;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. </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