The Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive was founded in 1920 by Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick. As the library's founding collection, the Photoarchive was established to complement the growing body of literature on the history of art, which until that time rarely included photographic reproductions. The library was one of the first institutions to afford public access to a collection of photographs of works of art to enable researchers to study works in an entirely new way.

During the early years of the library, photographs were purchased from agents such as Madame Clotilde Brière-Mismé. Helen also commissioned photographers, such as the Pach Brothers, Peter Juley, and William McKillop, to photograph works of art in situ. In 1923, the library hired its first staff photographer, Ira W. Martin. One of the unique features of the library was its pioneering campaigns to photograph unpublished works of art in private collections and little-known public collections in the United States and Italy. The photography trips in the United States began in March 1922 and continued until 1967. Through commissions, purchases, and the U.S. and Italian trips, the library amassed 57,000 original negatives.

Since its founding in 1920, the Photoarchive has continued to update the attribution and provenance of works of art represented in its collection and to acquire new photographs and digital images. The Photoarchive collects multiple photographs of single works of art, which in many cases depict the works in different physical states, such as before and after alterations or conservation treatments. Photographs of preparatory drawings, alternate versions, copies, pastiches, and forgeries—materials often overlooked in the literature—are also collected. Notably, many of the photographs in the collection are rare images of works that have since been lost, stolen, or destroyed.

Today, the Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive remains an active and useful resource for art historians, students, and other scholars. Its unique holdings comprise approximately 1.2 million reproductions of works of art, representing more than 40,000 artists, mainly from the fourth to the mid-twentieth century. At present, library staff is systematically digitizing the entire Photoarchive. Images and documentation for more than 400,000 works of art are currently available in the Frick Digital Collections.

archival photo of two men and woman standing alongside car

William McKillop(?), Lawrence Park, and Gertrude Hill on a library-sponsored photo expedition to Virginia in 1922.

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