This was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had in recent years. I received a call from my editor at the Smithsonian Magazine asking if I would be available to shoot in Washington, D.C. It was going to be in July, (read: hot!), and would take about a week. The editors at the magazine were busy coordinating seven photographers from around the United States, including Dan Winters, David Burnett and Albert Watson, to photograph a collection of objects at various Smithsonian Museums. I have been working in wet-plate collodion for about five years now, and was surprised to learn the photography department was interested in that work for an assignment. It was the first time anyone had ever commissioned work from me based on my “fine art” portfolio.
The title of the issue is called, “101 Objects That Made America.” The segment I photographed is entitled, “America In the World,” and all the objects that were chosen have to do with America as it relates to the world. You can see the pictures online here.
The pieces I was assigned to photograph span five centuries. The oldest “object” was a Novus Orbis map from 1532, based on tales from Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. It depicts the world as round, which at the time was a new idea, South America takes up most of that hemisphere and Cuba is where North America lies. The youngest object that I was assigned gave me the most pause and I felt a bit of a chill when the curators brought it to our makeshift studio. It is from 2001 and was donated to the Smithsonian by the New York City police. The stairwell sign from the 102nd floor of one of the twin towers that was destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th was gently put on the set. It had been found at the dump where the debris from the site had been taken in order to find any human remains or other significant evidence from that terrible day in American history.
When the issue was launched, the letter from the editor invited people to discuss the objects chosen for the special issue and to participate in a dialogue about what was included and why. I cannot imagine the vetting process of choosing only 101 objects out of 37 million. However, to be in such close proximity to things such as the Pocahontas engraving – the oldest piece in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection – was an extraordinary experience and one I will never forget.
The opening spread in Smithsonian Magazine for the section I illustrated, “America In the World.”
The second spread in Smithsonian Magazine where the oldest and newest objects are placed alongside a gas mask from World War I, the sign from the TV show, Mash, and a salvaged nuclear fallout shelter.