Stryker's relationship with Romana Javitz constitutes a great meeting of pictorial minds, and their friendship would last a lifetime. Stryker knew of Javitz's work through Shahn and Walker Evans, another RA/FSA photographer, who brought Stryker to the Picture Collection in 1936. Stryker sought Javitz's advice on the organization of the Resettlement Administration files by sending a third photographer from the RA/FSA, John Vachon, to New York in 1937 to study the Picture Collection's arrangement. (15) Recognizing the importance of the government's program to document the economic and social conditions of rural America, Javitz went down to Washington and pleaded with Stryker to have the subject content immediately and thoroughly analyzed as the pictures came in, "so that immediately you could find any subject," and "tried to impress upon him the importance of the gathering of data with each picture."(16)
In 1938, the budget for the FSA was cut and some photographers were released, including two of their best, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. By the early 1940s, with war production creating demand for agricultural products, the farm economy picked up and the FSA was urged to project a more upbeat image of America. Stryker knew that certain senators and representatives in Congress considered the archive a bad reflection on the country, and consequently there was a real threat that the photographs would be impounded. In an interview with Richard Doud in 1965, Javitz recalled that in the early 1940s she began to get anonymous packages of photographs in the mail at the Picture Collection:
Then, one day in great triumph Stryker appeared in person and said, "It's all right now, we can tell you. We had a meeting and decided that if Congress was going to impound all these pictures . . . as you know some senators were eager to have it done . . . , at least a duplicate file would be available in New York. But we didn't dare send it to you officially until the decks were clear. (17)
The decks were cleared when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a directive giving the FSA archive to the Library of Congress, whose Fine Arts Division would soon be reorganized as the Prints and Photographs Division. (18)
The FSA program ceased operation in 1943, and the photographic activities of the Historical Section were absorbed into the Office of War Information. Stryker transferred to the OWI as well, and saw to it that the Picture Collection received sets of photographs documenting the war effort at home and at the front. The partial collection of approximately 40,000 FSA/OWI photographs were circulated by the Picture Collection until the 1960s, when they were placed on reserve.
The addition of the FSA duplicates to the Picture Collection did more than enrich its files; it also underscored the rich potential of photographs that were produced without an overriding commercial agenda. Of the FSA pictures, Javitz stated:
. . . when the FSA came to us, they gave us a complete new eye. It was the first time we had images that were clean cut. Before that our pictures were very tainted by commerce from the point of view of selling . . . Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Harper's. They [the FSA photographs] weren't made to sell records or soap or whatnot. . . . Many of these pictures were considered great and beautiful photographs first because of their subject content and secondarily because of the skill of the photographer. I felt in going through the FSA you never felt it was a one-picture deal and that you had this sense of drive that you wanted to see the rest. (19)
In 1939, in her annual report, Javitz summed up her first ten years as head of the Picture Collection: In these ten years, the Picture Collection changed to an open-shelf type of library, issued its own borrowers' card, developed an unmounted type of picture for circulation, devised a scheme of classification for pictures, made a record of subject headings, started an information file on the sources of pictures and picture materials, created an exhibition and display service with pictures, and organized a subject index to moving picture stills. (20)
That year, all forty of the WPA employees were released, and work on the subject arrangement of and enhancements to the collection came to a halt. But the Picture Collection was now a major resource for the creative public of New York City, and its collections were accessible and of sufficient depth to satisfy the most peculiar of requests. Javitz knew that the Picture Collection was relied on by the commercial and creative communities in New York City, and she also recognized the historical significance of the public acceptance of the pervasive use of pictures in the everyday media:
American creative output is influenced in a great measure by this library service. An endless procession of art in industry derives from the Picture Collection: fabric, stage sets, dress, ornament, jewelry, toys, window displays, book production. . . . The universality and comprehensiveness of its files make this picture collection a particularly rich soil for the yielding of ideas. . . . It may be likened to a giant encyclopedia where pictures are consulted instead of the printed word.
Beginning with the decade of the thirties, the candid camera and picture magazines such as Life and Look came into being with a trail of encouragement in the use of pictures throughout all phases of living. . . . With the development of the candid camera and the widespread attendance of moving pictures, the public becomes visually educated and familiar with more aspects of the world. The advent of television and the flood of picture magazines carry in their wake more and more visual awareness. Pictorial representation now calls for precise representation of fact, although at the same time it allows for more freedom in methods. Artists have a wider range on which to base their designs, since the public is familiar with Balinese dancing and grain elevators, with Diesel engines and orchids. In its documentary function as recorder, the camera has familiarized the public with a vast array of factual appearances. (21)
Javitz truly understood the larger implications of the age of mechanical reproduction. From the point of view of a librarian and educator, she saw the Picture Collection as an encyclopedia of visual knowledge and built a useful system for the dissemination of that knowledge. As an artist, she realized the great potential of pictures as sources of the ideas and stimuli that all creative people need to produce their art. She also clearly understood the democratic nature of free access to materials and their unimpeded use. Finally, she recognized that no language or cultural barriers existed with visual materials. When, in 1939, Walter Benjamin penned his treatise "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"
which reflected on the implications of the mass production of images and words, Javitz was already contemplating the impact of television on the American public. (22)
In the 1940s, the Library of Congress sought the advice and counsel of Javitz on the organization of its collections. After a visit by Javitz to the Library of Congress's newly organized Prints and Photographs Division in 1944, the acting Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, wrote to the Library's director, Franklin F. Hopper, seeking his cooperation in establishing pictorial standards which would prove of immeasurable benefit to the whole American library system. The problems are many, principally because the subject is, for us at least, a new one. There are, for example, problems of nomenclature and terminology, of assortment and classification, of selection (involving canons of exclusion as well as inclusion), of descriptive cataloging and subject-headings, of adequate guides, handbooks and lists, of reproduction and the legal aspects of reproduction, of integration with other library services and collections, of custody and preservation and maintenance. (23)
In 1957 and 1958, the Library of Congress provided thousands of duplicate copyright deposits of prints and photographs to the Picture Collection in exchange for copy prints and microfilm reels from the New York Public Library's holdings. (24)
(Since the 1870s, copyright law has required that two copies of a photograph or print be sent to the Library of Congress for registration.) Among the materials from the Library of Congress were nineteenth-century Civil War and Spanish-American War scenes, cartes-de-visite and cabinet card portraits, travel views, and early American landscapes. Twentieth-century views included works by the photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn, Francis Bruguiere, Carl Moon, Laura Gilpin, and Margaret Bourke-White. Hundreds of images by amateur or aspiring photographers were also included. The amateur views in particular reveal a kind of folk art photography, depicting an abundance of unembellished scenes of American life, both rural and urban. (25)
Today, the Picture Collection still thrives as an essential resource for New York City's creative communities. But the Internet and the emerging technology of digital imaging is revolutionizing how we retrieve and perceive pictures, and it may soon be possible to extend access to the collection to researchers around the world. Along with these new technologies come challenges for today's picture librarians and curators. Maintaining subject terminologies that reflect the diverse cultures present in New York City is challenge enough. With the advent of the global village via the Internet, picture librarians will have to consider the notion of universal access and its cross-cultural, cross-linguistic implications. Copyright issues also loom large. Software now allows for the manipulation of a picture, or even a section of a picture. A specific horizon, a silhouette of a tree, or the face of a man may now be excised and pasted onto any other form of graphic. This provides exciting new creative possibilities for the artist, but it also complicates questions about what constitutes an original work of art and throws into disarray the traditional view of authorship.
With any new revolutionary medium comes the ability to rewrite old norms and standards, just as Javitz did. Librarians will be in a position to write new standards for visual materials in the digital age. The traditional role of picture librarians has been to provide free access to imagery for research and reference. This role may change, and the tools with which the role is executed may change as well. What is important to understand is that in digital form, the picture will finally become equal, in both access and status, to the written word, a fact that would probably have pleased Romana Javitz.
15. "Sometime ago, if you remember, I asked whether or not you would be willing to let one of my staff visit your room and make a little study of the very excellent filing system you have worked out. The time has now arrived when I should like to have the bearer of this note, Mr. John Vachon, impose on your generosity. Anything which you can do to aid Mr. Vachon will be appreciated by the Resettlement Administration." Stryker to Javitz, April 15, 1937, in Romana Javitz Papers.
16. Javitz, interviewed by Richard Doud, Feb. 23, 1965, 7, transcript, in Oral History Project, Archives of American Art.
17. Ibid., 7.
18. The Prints and Photographs Division (formerly Fine Arts Division) of the Library of Congress was created in 1944 in a general reorganization of the library. John Young Cole, For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress [through 1975] (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979), 117.
19. Ibid., #16, p. 4, 20.
20. Picture Collection Annual Report for 1939, 2, in Romana Javitz Papers.
21. 1939 Special Report on the Picture Collection with sections on Curtailment and Expansion, in Romana Javitz Papers. Quotations from pp. 1-3.
22. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, ).
23. Luther Evans, acting Librarian of Congress, to Franklin F. Hopper, Director of The New York Public Library, April 20, 1944, in Romana Javitz Papers.
24. Jennings Wood, Assistant Chief, Exchange and Gift Division, Library of Congress, to Javitz, May 1, 1958, in Romana Javitz Papers. The content and subject matter of the copy prints and microfilm reels have not been identified.
25. Holdings from the Library of Congress exchange, and a group of photographs acquired by Javitz over her tenure at the Picture Collection, are how housed in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Center for the Humanities, The Research Libraries of The New York Public Library, as the Romana Javitz Collection.
Originally published in Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library
Volume 4, Number 1, Fall 1995. ©1995 Anthony T. Troncale.