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The photographs presented here are selected from the approximately 7,000 images collected since the museum’s photography program began thirty years ago, in 1983. Ranging from daguerreotype to digital, they depict the American experience and are loosely grouped around four ideas: American Characters, Spiritual Frontier, America Inhabited, and Imagination at Work.
The title A Democracy of Images refers to Walt Whitman’s belief that photography was a quintessentially American activity, rooted in everyday people and ordinary things and presented in a straightforward way. Known as the “poet of democracy,” Whitman wrote after visiting a daguerreotype studio in 1846: “You will see more life there—more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty. . . than in any spot we know.” At the time of Whitman’s death, in 1892, George Eastman had just introduced mass market photography when he put an affordable box camera into the hands of thousands of Americans. The ability to capture an instant of lasting importance and fundamental truth mesmerized Americans then and continues to inspire photographers working today.
A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is made possible with generous support from: Saundra B. Lane Lisa and John Pritzker The Crown Equipment Exhibitions Endowment The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund