Photoarchive Centennial Project: Carrying the Library's Founding Collection Forward

Side-by-side of oil painting of three boys on an outdoor picnic, with a glowing sunset in the background. The image at left is in black and white, and in full color at right.
Miner Kilbourne Kellogg (American, 1814–1889), William Austin Wadsworth, Herbert Wadsworth, and Livingston Wadsworth, 1863. Oil on canvas, 41 1/2 x 27 1/4 in. The Homestead, Geneseo, New York. Left: Photo by Thurman Rotan (1903–1991), Frick Art Reference Library. Right: Photo by Lauren P. Wadsworth, 2020

As part of the preparations for its centennial celebrations that will take place in 2022, the Frick Art Reference Library is partnering with Global Art Access, an educational non-profit organization, to digitize 100 paintings in private collections that were first captured by photographers hired by the Frick from the 1920s to the 1960s. From the start, the library’s founder, Helen Clay Frick, realized the importance of photographs for art historians not only as memory aids, but even more as tools for actively comparing, analyzing, and understanding works of art. Since photography was relatively new in the 1920s, it was still extremely expensive and many could not afford high-quality photographs to support their research. Providing photographs for viewing purposes free of charge in a library filled with monographs, auction catalogs, exhibition catalogues, and other reference books was an incredible gift to those with an interest in art. The Photoarchive's mission remains to preserve and augment these original materials, and its partnership with Global Art Access will help carry this legacy forward.

Starting with the first trip in 1922 to Virginia, Helen Clay Frick’s photographers began road trips to private collections up and down the East Coast of the United States. The expeditions continued into the 1960s; by that time the library had photographed thousands of works of art, many of which had languished unnoticed and unknown by art historians until the Frick’s visits.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman and two men standing next to an early automobile parked on a muddy dirt road.
Frick Art Reference Library staff on the road during a photo expedition in Virginia, 1922.

The Frick Photograph Campaigns turned out to be especially significant for the history of American art, most of which was unknown to art historians because it still hung in private homes. Having access to photos of these works of art allowed art historians to work systematically to improve scholarship. Books on American colonial painting that began to appear in the 1940s (such as James Flexner's First Flowers of Our Wilderness and Waldron Phoenix Belknap's American Colonial Painting) consistently cite the Frick photographs as the primary source for their visual material. Even today these images are of immense importance, for many of the works remain unpublished or, in some cases, have been lost or destroyed. In addition, they serve as documents of the state of American collections of art in the first half of the twentieth century.

As color photography had yet to be developed, the images the Frick obtained from its photography trips were all in black and white. While these images are very high quality and show more detail than current viewers may imagine, many have faded over time and some of the original negatives have deteriorated, making the images less valuable.

In 2019, Global Art Access came to the library and discussed a new project to digitize and make accessible to the public works of art belonging to private collectors. Global Art Access reasoned that while digitization and access initiatives have been prevalent within publicly accessible collections throughout the past decade, private collections remain largely inaccessible. By giving private collections the same digitization treatment, the works of art they contain could be more accessible to the public and more easily available for research purposes.

A photographer taking a photo of an illuminated portrait of a man hanging on a wall in a richly decorated room, with two others assisting in the photo shoot.
Lauren P. Wadsworth photographing a work of art at The Homestead, Geneseo, NY, for Global Art Access, assisted by her father William S. Wadsworth and sister Piper A. Wadsworth, descendants of the family that commissioned the painting above; photo: Crista Wadsworth, 2020

Parallels with the library’s efforts led by Helen Clay Frick a century ago were striking. We therefore decided to embark on a project together, in which the Frick will contact current owners of paintings that library staff had previously photographed to determine their interest in having Global Art Access create new, high-quality digital images of their works of art. These new images will both contribute to the aims of Global Art Access and help the Frick Art Reference Library celebrate its centennial by enriching its founding collection.

Global Art Access digitized the first collection in fall 2020 and gifted it to the Frick for inclusion in the Photoarchive. After the premiere of the first group of images during winter 2021, the project will continue through 2022, aiming to digitize 100 works in total. The digitization of these works of art, for the first time in full color, provides the public and scholars alike unprecedented access to objects that otherwise remain in private collections with very little public exposure. The plan is for these digital images to appear not only in the Frick Digital Collections, but also in other public image platforms including the National Portrait Gallery's Catalog of American Portraits, the Smithsonian Learning Lab, the Digital Public Library of America, WikiArt, Artnet, Google Arts & Culture, and Artsy. In this way, just as Helen Frick made images available to a much wider public than ever before, Global Art Access will do the same for a worldwide audience.

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