A Democracy of Images

Sonya Noskowiak, Calla Lily, ca. 1930s



Edward Weston, Pepper No.30, 1930




Robert K. Hower, July 4th Celebration, Louisville, Jefferson County, KY, 1976

John Pfahl, Goodyear #5, 1989




Robert Disraeli, Cold Day on Cherry Street. 1932



Walker Evans, Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936




Barbara Kasten, Photogenic Painting Untitled 1974, 1974




John K. Rose, James A. Garfield, Chief of Apaches, 1900

Deborah Luster, 01-26 Location. 1800 Leonidas Street (Carrollton) Date(s). July 14, 2009 7:55 a.m. Name(s). Brian Christopher Smith (22) Notes. Face up with multiple gunshot wounds., 2008-2012

This photograph, from a series that documents contemporary and historical homicide sites in New Orleans, presents Deborah Luster’s interpretation of the last view of the crime victim lying face up on the ground. The title is the entry from the New Orleans Police blotter, but the photograph is Luster’s meditation on looking, seeing, and the power of images to haunt our imagination.

A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The photographs presented here are selected from the approximately 7,000 images collected since the museum’s photography program began thirty years ago, in 1983. Ranging from daguerreotype to digital, they depict the American experience and are loosely grouped around four ideas: American Characters, Spiritual Frontier, America Inhabited, and Imagination at Work.

The title A Democracy of Images refers to Walt Whitman’s belief that photography was a quintessentially American activity, rooted in everyday people and ordinary things and presented in a straightforward way. Known as the “poet of democracy,” Whitman wrote after visiting a daguerreotype studio in 1846: “You will see more lifethere—more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty. . . than in any spot we know.” At the time of Whitman’s death, in 1892, George Eastman had just introduced mass market photography when he put an affordable box camera into the hands of thousands of Americans. The ability to capture an instant of lasting importance and fundamental truth mesmerized Americans then and continues to inspire photographers working today.


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