The Real Worth of a Photograph: How the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection Has Survived In the Age of Google Image

The New York Public Library's Warhol--a 1954 holiday card to Picture Collection supervisor Ramona Javitz.COURTESY NYPL.ORG

The New York Public Library’s Warhol–a 1954 holiday card to Ramona Javitz, then head of the Picture Collection.


There are around 80 million photographs shared on Instagram every day, according to the company’s statistics. That’s roughly 929 photos a second, which equates to 3.3 million images an hour, or a little over 1.5 million photographs every half hour. 1.5 million is about the number of images currently housed in the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, a trove of photographs, illustrations, drawings, and archival images, culled from all kinds of sources and comprising 1,500 linear feet—or, as the library boasts, close to the height of the Empire State Building. The collection is 100 years old as of this year.

The library was founded in 1911, and its picture collection not long after that because—beginning in the pre-Instagram, pre-Google Image age—artists from Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol would come to the library with requests for source materials. Rivera would send assistants to do research for his Man at the Crossroads fresco, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, who ordered the work destroyed due to its communist imagery. Warhol would look at pictures of Coke bottles. Art Spiegelman based his graphic novel Maus in part on pictures he found in the collection of a Beatrix Potter ballet, which featured anthropomorphic mice. Among the stranger requests for an image from the collection, dated August 24, 1920, and on view at an anniversary exhibition for the picture collection at the public library’s main branch, was for pictures of dolls being carried into France, on a donkey, by an Italian, in the 18th century.

One might think that Google would have put a service such as this out of business, but the Internet has its limits, and the picture collection is a throwback, like a safe space where the Internet never happened. Though about 44,000 pictures dating from before 1923–the copyright cutoff date–have been digitized, most of the images are pulled from books and magazines and are still protected, so they’ve never been posted online.

“We get a lot of requests from set designers or prop masters for television shows,” Billy Parrott, the collection’s curator, told me in an interview at the library’s main branch earlier this month. “Things that are very specific, and they’re using us because it’s stuff that they can’t find on Google. When a prop master for a show needs pictures of high-end department-store shopping bags from New York City, but they have to be from 1970—you can’t Google that. And that’s why people still come to our collection, because they know they can find those kinds of materials.”

The person most responsible for organizing and overseeing the collection was Ramona Javitz, a librarian who became head of the department in 1929, and worked there through the mid-’60s. Javitz was friends with the greatest artists of her time. Warhol gave her a hand-drawn holiday card in 1954. Joseph Cornell used to send her anonymous works. Her friend Dorothea Lange sent her a letter, on view in the exhibition, asking Javitz’s advice about some “photographs [that] were started early in the Depression, and were made with no particular purpose in mind except that I was strongly moved by what was surrounding us in those days.” (“My query to you is, what should I do with [them]?” Lange wrote. Prints from the series are in the collection.)

The pictures are arranged through a series of subject headings–12,000 of them. Jelly fish, Parrott said, can be found in the Marina Fauna and Flora/Jelly Fish folder. There is no folder dedicated to images of piano movers, Parrott said, “But somebody who needs to illustrate a picture of piano movers can find relevant information from the subject heading Pulleys, Music/Piano, Rope, Work Gloves, Anatomy, Moving, Working, Accidents. Sometimes accidents happen.” There are more esoteric subjects, too, folders dedicated to ideas without a set definition. One has the heading Curiosity and includes everything from images of people looking through peepholes to a chimpanzee looking up Jane Goodall’s shirt to a picture of a dead cat.

“Sometimes we have to work with artists to figure out exactly what they’re looking for,” Parrott said. “Blue jeans–there’s not a pants folder, and there’s not a denim folder. So you’d have to just think where you’d see pictures in the collection of people wearing jeans. So Music/1990s, where every grunge band had jeans on. Fashion ads from the ’90s, Polo, Ralph Lauren and what not. Work Clothes and Farm wear. We do get stumpers, though.”

He paused to consider this. “In the past month,” he said, “we’ve had two different requests from prop masters doing research on illegal gambling–like 1910, 1920s gambling halls in New York City, and the same thing in Chinatown in San Francisco in the mid-’60s. These are illegal activities, so there weren’t people in there taking pictures. So we try find pictures of people gambling. So large, fancy gambling halls, and sort of speakeasy kinds of places? There are illustrations, but it’s not the kind of thing there are pictures of. So we try to inform what one might have looked like. If it was a high-end establishment, we could find very nice interiors of hotels, interiors of houses, to show high-end furniture of the era, and then the artist can go from there.”

Billy Parrott in the Pictures Collection. JONATHAN BLANC/NYPL

Billy Parrott in the Pictures Collection.


At this point, Parrott and I walked across Fifth Avenue to the mid-Manhattan library, where the collection is tucked away in an unassuming corner on the third floor. There is nothing flashy about the space—just some tables surrounded by rows and rows of shelves with folders. The wall by the entrance is covered by a long cabinet that contains only old greeting cards. (Parrott rattled off the subcategories: “Castles of Germany, Cathedrals of England…”) But the sheer volume of information is overwhelming.

“After World War II,” Parrott said, “someone who worked for the Guardian had heard about the collection, and there’s a story that when he came in apparently he just covered his eyes because it was all just so much to take in. The idea of so much potential.” (Parott added proudly that the collection is open. “You don’t have to make an appointment,” he said. “You dive right in.”)

I asked him if there were any recent additions to the collection. Parrott said it’s not often that a new subject arises, in part because the collection doesn’t create taste, only a record of it. They also are “waiting for the Library of Congress to catch up.” One exception, he said, is the subject Transgender, which as recently as five years ago—following the Library of Congress’s lead—was housed under the heading Impersonators.

“That’s really so unfortunate,” he said, “but the thinking was if you’re a man dressing as a woman, you’re impersonating a woman. Times changed, though.”

The collection, then, is not only a photographic document of the last hundred years, but also a catalogue of how images are consumed.

“Sometimes we just have to wait until times change,” Parrott said. “We have a picture of Jerry Seinfeld wearing a Google Glass. And we thought, okay, we could just put this here in Personalities/Seinfeld. But somebody someday is going to come in looking for pictures of wearable technology. So we haven’t filed that yet. Sometimes you just have to wait until something is created.”

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