The Invisible Photograph: Underground in the Corbis Image Vault

Invisible Photo P1 06

Still from Underground: The Corbis Image Vault, Part 1 of The Invisible Photograph © Carnegie Museum of Art.

For a few days back in late December 2013, a small group of us found ourselves 250 feet underground, exploring the subterranean expanse of Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine located in rural Western Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half’s drive north of Pittsburgh. You reach Iron Mountain on a windy road dotted with farmlands until you finally arrive at a nondescript parking lot and a guard station. Over 2,500 people work in this place, one of many Iron Mountain sites across the country, but you would never guess the immensity of it until you’re inside.

Here among data centers, governmental document storage facilities (including the National Archives and US Social Security), and vast collections of television and film celluloid reels (like Warner Brothers and Universal Studios), sits a repository of a very different kind of material. The Corbis Iron Mountain Archive houses over eleven million photographic negatives and glass plates from the Otto Bettmann Archive spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, and represents a significant glimpse into some of the most important historical moments captured by photographers both well-known and obscure. The fact that the collection was moved from an above-ground storage facility in New York City over ten years ago into the current underground “cold” storage gives a sense of its increasing importance. Bettmann himself had to smuggle his collection into the country after he was pushed out of Austria by the Nazis.

Continue reading

On This Day: Worlds Away and the World Next Door

120, 0.6, 4

Greg Stimac, Mowing the Lawn (Chandler, AZ), 2005/2006. Courtesy of the artist.

In October of 2008, Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes opened in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art. Organized by Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this exhibition examined the mythology of the American suburbs as a place of homogeneity and conformity. In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, Andrew Blauvelt, Senior Curator, Architecture and Design at Walker Art Center, detailed the dramatic transformation of the suburbs over the last three decades. As part of On This Day, our ongoing series that examines artworks, exhibitions, and events from the archives at Carnegie Museum of Art, we are pleased to present Blauvelt’s essay in its entirety. —Matthew Newton, Associate Editor

Sometime during the past fifty years, the United States became a suburban nation. Although the 2000 census confirmed that more Americans live in suburbs than in central cities or rural areas combined, the increasing isolation of the city became glaringly obvious in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns when maps charting the voting results county by county revealed a cascade of red flowing from the urban periphery into the surrounding countryside. The assumption that urban cores voted Democratic (blue) and suburban areas Republican (red) was evident in the last presidential election where ninety-seven of the one hundred fastest-growing counties voted for the GOP candidate. However, it’s not only the quantitative but also the qualitative measures that prove the suburb no longer lives in the shadow of the city. Long dominated by the city as its normative measure, today’s suburbia marches on, trying to leave the polis in its wake.

Continue reading

Program Notes: Stewarding Media Artworks into the Future


Carnegie Museum of Art film and video program notes from the 1970s. Image: Film and Video Department archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.

Earlier this year, the museum began working on the second phase of an A. W. Mellon grant-funded project to preserve, and make accessible, its time-based media collection holdings and related archival materials. Time-based media is a broad term referring to film, video, audio, digital, computer-based, or installation art with a specified duration and a dependency on changing technology. As media and equipment become obsolete, the artwork is increasingly at risk. Worldwide, conservators, preservationists, and archivists are working to protect these assets. The Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) is part of this field-wide trend.

A great deal of work was accomplished in the first phase of the project, which started in 2011. We completed a thorough inventory of the collection, integrated new installation and acquisition documentation protocols into our existing procedures, and digitized key unique holdings for preservation and access. The project team also organized a three-day public symposium, A Collection of Misfits: Time-Based Media in the Museum, to address the challenges surrounding the preservation and presentation of time-based media artworks in a museum context.

Continue reading

September Snapshots: See and Be Seen


Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #11, 2012 © Arne Svenson, Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

Last month, This Picture asked you to consider a photograph from Arne Svenson’s series, The Neighbors. Taken without the subjects’ permission and shot with a long lens, these photographs of people in their private residences garnered widespread attention because of the lawsuit filed against the artist for alleged invasion of privacy.

This month’s responses did indeed explore the tension between public and private, but they also in equal measure injected a healthy dose of levity into the conversation by focusing on the partially obscured, slightly surreal, and completely compelling stuffed giraffe that makes an appearance in the photograph. I must admit, when we selected this image as one of our This Picture features, not one of us predicted the draw of “the giraffe factor.” Live and learn.

Continue reading

Kings on the Hill: Rise of the Pittsburgh Crawfords


Copy of a photograph of the 1926 Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team. Standing left to right: Nate, co-founder Bill Harris, Harry Beale, Buster Christian, and Jasper Stevens; seated left to right: William Smith, Tootsie Deal, Julius, Whitey Turner, Reese Mosley, Bill Jones, co-founder Charles “Teenie” Harris, and Johnny Moore, Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.9090 © 2006 Teenie Harris Archive.

What in time became known as one of the greatest baseball clubs in the world began as a group of black and white Pittsburgh youths playing ball on the sandlots of the Hill. Organized baseball might have been lily-white in the 1920s, but race didn’t count that much on the Hill when it came time to choose up sides for a game. Blacks and whites played together, ate meals at each other’s homes, and often were whipped by both black and white mamas when they got into trouble. The Hill was a racial and ethnic smorgasbord, and pick-up games reflected that variety. As street play became increasingly organized into team competition, however, a sorting out by race occurred. Consequently, sandlot clubs were rarely composed of both black and white players, even though their members might have grown up playing ball together. The Crawfords came out of this interracial mix but became an all-black squad as they moved further away from the streets.

The roots of the Crawfords were in the South and the subsequent migration northward. Bill Harris was born on Christmas day 1909 in Calhoun, Alabama. His parents had met while working as cooks at the local public school, but neither a piece of land nor a job inspecting cars for the railroad was sufficient inducement to resist the lures of the North. The Harrises’ oldest son, Earl, was the first to leave. He moved to Pittsburgh and worked construction jobs. When Earl wrote home that the money was good, the Harris family soon joined him. His father worked construction, too, beginning as a laborer and eventually becoming a pusher, or gang leader. The five Harris brothers held a variety of jobs but became better known for their feats on the diamond, first in Pittsburgh and then across black America.

Continue reading