Artist Joseph Cornell once requested a picture of a street urchin with a white cockatoo.
Andy Warhol borrowed hundreds of images for inspiration—and never returned them.
For more than a century, the New York Public Library’s picture collection has flourished, spectacularly but precariously, as shapeshifting misfits within the Dewey Decimal Grid. Established in 1915, the collection lends images to library users who are looking for a mind-boggling range of visual information: prayer, fairies, exhibition, rear view – from abacus to zoology with over 12,000 rubrics, a history of taste which is still expanding. Its files are categorized by subject matter, and available to browse on open shelves.
“You see people go through it and touch it and there’s the ease of discovery,” said taryn simon, the conceptual artist who has been photographing the Picture Collection’s treasure trove for nine years, creating collages that can currently be viewed Gagosian. “It’s so multifaceted. Keeps rotating. I think of it as a performance piece or installation.”
Now, in a development that Simon obsessively laments, the library administration has decided that beginning next year, the collection will be archived, available only to visitors upon specific request.
In a long-standing tension between accessibility and protection, patrons have prevailed, unwilling to accept the inevitable erosion of borrowed images through wear or theft. “Either it is transitory and not in a research library, or it is a collection that must be preserved,” William P. Kelly, director of research libraries, said in an interview. “We’re trying to move it from an outlier and a satellite to be an integral part of the collection.”
Once the picture collection is relocated, Room 100 will be replaced by administrators who were hired for educational outreach. This reorientation carries with it a terrible irony, as outreach was the enthusiastically organized mission of Romana Javitz, who was named curator of the collection in 1929 and defined and defended it for nearly four decades against those who thought that the hodgepodge of local visual material was not in the library.
Javitz, an immigrant from Minsk, Russia, deftly stated in 1940 that “many facts that required hours to track down in texts could be discovered rapidly and easily by consulting illustrations.” The collection developed as a collaboration between librarians’ inquiry and the demands of the public. With democratic symmetry, Javitz and his staff asked curious nobles and established artists questions. (Though he made allowances for the artists. When Warhol failed to return the borrowed photographs, Javitz acknowledged that he was being employed to produce the art and did not follow up.)
He responded to requests with the same polite diligence, whether they came from an anonymous interrogator about “Peg-Leg John” (did he want real-life abolitionist Peg Leg Joe or fictional pirate Long John Silver?) or Joseph From Cornell, Master of Combination. Cornell became a friend of Javitz, as did several photographers – Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Louise Heine and Dorothea Lange – who were mesmerized by the respect for his work.
She was ahead of her time, but the world caught on. For the collection, it was a mixed blessing. Javitz was gifted with hundreds of paintings from Evans, Lang, and other photographers, who sought a wider dissemination of their prints, which had relatively little commercial value. in large donations, Roy Striker, who led the Farm Security Administration’s photography project during the recession, transferred more than 40,000 prints to the Picture Collection.
But after Javitz retired in 1968, photography’s status as an art took off, with prices rising. Thousands of extraordinary artistic or historical photographs were taken from the circulating picture collection to the print room, where they joined durere Woodcut, Hiroshige prints and Goya etching. “You’re not coming here looking for Dorothea Lange,” said Jessica Kline, the current head of picture collection. “You are here looking for agricultural life.”
From movie-set decorators to handbag designers, picture collections have long served the creative community. “Someone was doing a film that was set in New York at the turn of the last century,” said Jay Vissers, one of four full-time librarians at the Picture Collection, who has been there since 1994. “He looked at the pictures to see how much horse feces was on the road.”
Legendary Hollywood production designer Wynn Thomas (“Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X”) always begins his research into picture collections. The plan for Ron Howard’s 2005 boxing film, “Cinderella Man”, set in North Bergen, NJ, went dry in search of a scene record. “The librarian suggested I look into Depression-era folders, and especially Chicago 1920-30,” he recalled. Not only did he find images of courtyards that influenced his design, but he also chose a palette of dark, gray and light colors, responding to black-and-white photographs of that era.
“When the production designers of ‘Mad Men’ needed to know what a shopping bag looked like in 1950, they came here,” said Joshua Chuang, senior curator of photography at the library. “I think of it as the most radical access to the latent layers of visual culture.”
Art Spiegelman, who used the collection while working as a newspaper illustrator—”I’d browse what 1930s baseball uniforms looked like,” he said—relied on it extensively when he determined were how to portray the characters. His graphic novel “Maus”, which are humans in the form of animals. He was particularly concerned about the head-to-body ratio. He went through folders of distinctive animals, children’s book characters, dramatic costumes (the ballet “Tales of Beatrix Potter” was instructive), and anthropomorphic animals in Chinese and Japanese art. He also found drawings for the concentration camps in which the protagonists were imprisoned, based on their parents, Vladek and Anja.
But then he hit a roadblock in the search for images relating to the displaced persons’ camps in which Vladeck was after the liberation. “I was stunned and went to this librarian and he said, ‘This is a tough one.’ Then he stopped and said, ‘Try coneset huts.’ And by God, there was.”
These days, in a Google search for images on the Internet, an algorithm spits out the most popular options into a self-reinforcing stream of predictions. In picture collection, the quirks of human choice dictate what you see. “It’s the high and low sides that are so incredible,” Chuang said. “There’s a kind of messy purity about it.”
The pile behind Room 100 holds rows of recently acquired books and magazines that will soon be clipped by librarians to complement the folders. (About 400 images are added every month.) The classification of the files itself is constantly changing. “Negro” became “black-life,” and recent additions include “transgenderism,” “drone” and, surprisingly, “friendship.”
“It’s very important for people to be able to borrow these things and constantly feed these collections,” Vissers said. “Otherwise, it’s like a box in the attic.”
Use has declined in the age of the Internet, but for its devotees, the tactile experience of touching paper images is even more powerful now that it is a novelty. “There’s no substitute for that excitement of discovery around the physicality of something in a room that you hold in your hands,” said photographer Peter Kayafas, who brings his Pratt Institute students to explore it.
The fate of the collection may have been sealed in 2017, when it was moved from the Mid-Manhattan circulating branch to the main library. Going forward, Kelly wants Picture Collection users to be more prepared and less comfortable. “The model we are trying to develop is that more information is transparently available online so that they can find it before they come to the library,” he said.
However, without providing the jolt and tickle of luck, the picture collection will be kicked off its line. The artist, Simon, said that his own experience with the collection – featuring “false finishes and evolving and changing” – opened doors to the unexpected.
His project has resulted in an even bigger book, “The Color of a Flea’s Eye: Picture Collection.” This includes plates of photo collages that Simon created in his studio by taking photos from folders he had arranged by hand. The Javitz and Pictures collection has a rich history, including correspondence and a list of all folder subject titles.
Inspired by the venerable paintings hanging in the library’s Beaux-Arts Edna Barnes Salomon Room, Simon designed his photo collages to be suspended by visible stars, some seen in Room 100. In the long-planned second part of the exhibition this fall, in the Salomon Room, New York grandees from the era in which the library was founded will be facing some of Simon’s images from the portrait collection – from left-wing exhibits to the nude behind to the ends of – which he would have preferred to keep under wraps. “Their seeing each other is very important in the establishment,” Simon said.
This face-to-face confrontation is a reminder that the collection – with its wide-open accessibility and radically democratic in its conglomeration of high and low – has made sticklers for regulation and order uneasy from the start.