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Muse: Using the Library’s Picture Collection for Source Material

Seven Wonders
Image ID 1625139, The New York Public Library

How do artists and designers find the images they use to spark their creativity? Source material, or the physical things that become elements of inspiration for artists, designers, writers, filmmakers, students, teachers, etc., is one of the happy reasons people visit the Picture Collection. We have tons of it. Andy Warhol is known to have sifted through these pictures, as well as, Joseph Cornell.

Many artists have created their own systems of images that they stockpile for later mining for ideas. Olivia Laing writes about Henry Darger’s source folders in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone:

There were thousands of these source images: folder after folder filled with pictures clipped from colouring books, comics, cartoons, newspapers, adverts and magazines. They attested to an obsessive love of popular culture that reminded me again of Warhol, a hoarding and repurposing of just the kind of ordinary things that would later be embraced by Pop Art, something Darger never mentioned and quite possible never saw.

Despite the rumors about his disorderly, chaotic habits, Darger had evidently been meticulous in organising this raw material, establishing thematic groupings: sets of clouds and girls, images of the Civil War, of boys, men, butterflies, disasters - all the divergent elements, in fact, that together make up the universe of the Realms. He’d stored them in stacks of filthy envelopes, which were carefully labeled with his own idiosyncratic descriptions: ‘Plant and child pictures’, ‘Clouds to be drawn’, ‘Special picture Girl bending with stick and another jumping away in terror’, ‘One girl with some one’s finger under chin Maybe sketch maybe not’ (p. 160).

Darger had the same idea as us (perhaps he made an undocumented visit to New York City and the New York Public Library!). At the Picture Collection we organize images thematically, culled from books, magazines, and photographic collections, taking them out of their original context to open up the possibilities to how they can be interpreted.

Image ID 1588418, The New York Public Library
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Image ID 814604, The New York Public Library
The Picture Collection’s images are organized in subject headings, which have no hierarchy, but simply evolve as the number of pictures on a subject increases. Subjects are gathered by availability, chance and public interest. They can be idiosyncratic (you’ll find dinosaurs under Extinct Fauna -- Reptiles and Vikings under Northmen); others are fresh and attempting to keep up with changing interests. Many subjects are broken down by time period or region, including our two most popular headings, Costume and New York City. We have millions of images of source material, all available free to use and nicely, and uniquely, organized. Searching the collection for pictures is a chance to form your own algorithm, return images to your search by your own cognition or serendipity, although limited like the Internet, by what has been made available within the scope of the collection. You can take a peek at our subject headings with this cheat sheet!


Today will be different

Orange is the New Black and Girls costume designer Jenn Rogien uses the collection when looking for ideas for dressing the shows' characters. When asked about her inspiration she listed, “People watching, NYC, vintage catalogs, street style pix, Bklyn event pix, @nypl picture collection.” Likewise, longtime Picture Collection user, Eric Chase Anderson found inspiration in our files while working on his book Chuck Dugan is AWOL, and more recently while working on the art for Maria Semple’s novel, Today Will Be Different, to garner ideas into a resource book:  

Anderson, who worked on Today’s visual elements without being able to read the finished book, drew upon some of Semple’s suggested influences—which included outsider artist Henry Darger and Harriet the Spy author-illustrator Louise Fitzhugh—as well as months of research at the Picture Collection of the New York Public Library, where he looked for visual elements from the ’60s and ’70s. “We needed a healthy-sized but finite, curated collection [of research materials] we would both have on-hand, from which we could make selections we both liked,” says the 43-year-old artist. “From this came our Research Bible—a visual encyclopedia. [It] ended up being 234 pages, covering all kinds of looks for rooms, people, clothes, faces, expressions, scenes, settings, nature, and lots of textiles.” Raftery, Brian. “This Vivid, Hilarious Read Is the Comic (and Graphic!) Novel of the Year.”, Conde Nast Digital, 4 Oct. 2016.

Image ID 833698, The New York Public Library

The use of found images as source material is often the process artists follow in creating new work. The idea behind art building upon itself has been discussed by art historians and critics such as E.H. Gombrich in The Story of Art. Gombrich writes, “I have tried to tell the story of art as the story of a continuous weaving and changing of traditions in which each work refers to the past and points to the future” (p. 595), therefore looking at what has come before to create something new. Appropriation (using an image in an artwork that was created by someone else, often with little alteration) is an even further take on the role of art in originality and the building of one idea or image from another. What do we make of the bottles that Warhol sourced from Coca-Cola ads he found in the Picture Collection? This can get legally sticky, but has been the basis of some famous art practice. Here are a few artists known for appropriated images into their work:




Elaine Sturtevant

Reproduced famous works after meticulously studying the artist’s techniques, most notably Andy Warhol.



Richard Prince: American Prayer

Books from Prince’s collection that offer the source of his artistic series. He often appropriates images from popular culture, such as the Marlboro Cowboys, in his artwork.



Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Appropriated everyday objects as works of art and called them Ready-mades.



Fair Use is often cited as the guide to avoiding copyright infringement, but it is important to understand the guidelines and limits of fair use. The images in the Picture Collection are copyright protected by their original owners. Every image is tagged with a code which documents the original source the image came from. But, there are over 44,000 images from the Picture Collection in the Library’s Digital Collections, and many are in the public domain  and available free for reuse.

tea party
Image ID 822871, The New York Public Library


As a host to creators of visual expression, the Picture Collection celebrates its role as a repository of source material to provide inspiration. Please visit us whether you need images to illustrate the changing design of teapots across time and cultures, for the eyes of camel, for an 18th century ball gown, or just to browse for source material in a very special collection.

Picture Collection
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Room 100
5th Ave @ 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018
Image ID 833983, The New York Public Library
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Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

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