The Photoarchive was established in 1920 to complement the growing body of literature on the history of art, which until that time rarely included photographic reproductions. Although many scholars had personal image libraries, the Frick Library was one of the first institutions to afford public access to a consolidated collection of photographs to enable a broad range of researchers to study and evaluate works of art in an entirely new way. The establishment of similar image collections in Europe and the United States soon followed.

In planning the Photoarchive, Helen Clay Frick regularly consulted with Sir Robert Witt, whose personal library of reproductions in London was her single most important source of inspiration. She also turned to American and European scholars. In 1921 she wrote to the distinguished architectural historian Fiske Kimball: "I am endeavoring to form an Art Reference Library in connection with the Frick Collection for the use of serious students of art. Eventually this library will comprise photographs of all the paintings and drawings of representative artists, with complete bibliographical and historical data…"

As early as 1922, Helen Clay Frick organized photographic expeditions to record significant and rarely reproduced works of art in Europe and the United States. The resulting collection of 57,000 original negatives, which in many cases document works of art that have subsequently been altered, lost, or destroyed, has become one of the Library's most treasured resources.

The Library continues to acquire thousands of photographs and digital images each year, focusing on unpublished or little-known works. Extensive documentation for the works of art is gathered from both published and unpublished sources and has accrued over the decades, providing researchers with valuable and often otherwise unobtainable information. Staff photoarchivists make every effort to keep this documentation current, often relying on data provided by art researchers. The Photoarchive thus remains a vital and growing source of both visual and historical documentation.

Sepia-toned photograph of two men and one woman standing next to a circa 1920 automobile stuck in a muddy dirt road.

William McKillop(?), Lawrence Park, and Gertrude Hill, photoexpedition to Virginia in 1922