In one corner of the black and white image, shot by an unknown photographer near Washington, D.C. in 1920, a hooded Klu Klux Klansman looks towards the camera. In the center, men in dark suits—initiates to the group—kneel before a crowd of Klansmen and a blazing cross.

“We chose that image two years ago, before Charlottesville,” says photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, as she takes me on a tour of Not an Ostrich and other Images from America’s Library, a new exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography. When Tucker and her colleagues chose the photograph, they didn’t anticipate that it would have as much contemporary resonance as it does today; the Unite the Right rally (which gathered white supremacists and white nationalists to Charlottesville, Virginia) had not yet occurred.

With the American flag as their banner, the Ku Klux Klan assembled in numbers for initiations. 300 gathered within two miles of the U.S. Capitol and received 50 candidates for membership in the mystic order, 1920s. From the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

In July 2017, Klan members held a rally in Charlottesville; later, in August, white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia. For Tucker, the significance of the 1920 image rests both in its reference to white nationalism in America (which has surged in recent years), as well as its ability to communicate something new in our contemporary climate: namely, that the Klan was more widespread than most realize today, rising in the Washington area at nearly the same time as it was gaining influence in the deep South.

“When we selected that picture, it was history,” she says. “Now it has contemporary significance.”

Although Not an Ostrich takes us on a walk through time, in Anne Wilkes Tucker’s capable hands, the images and the themes take on fresh meaning. Photographs of New York City, for example, shot by a teenage Stanley Kubrick, offer a glimpse of something otherwise unknown. “You look at his pictures and you can see ‘that eye,’” Tucker says.

To learn more about the creation of this groundbreaking show, I caught up with Tucker at the gleaming, high-tech Annenberg Space in Los Angeles, California.

Archeology of Images

In 2013, Wallis Annenberg, the Chairman of the Board for the Annenberg Space, watched a CBS Sunday Morning piece on the Library of Congress’s archive. The piece focused in particular on photographer Carol Highsmith and her decades-long endeavor to document all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia. Ultimately, Highsmith chose to donate every image to the Library of Congress.

Intrigued by this massive archiving effort, Wallis commissioned Tucker to curate an exhibition of 500 uncatalogued photographs from the Library’s archives, which contain 14 million images (and counting). Over the course of the project, the Library’s staff estimates that Tucker reviewed more than one million photographs.

Detroit Publishing Co. Saving Sinners, Scene Along the Mississippi River, c. 1912. From the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Tucker set to work in 2015, spending about two weeks per month sifting through images in the archive—a fitting project for the luminary figure who was named “America’s Curator” by Time Magazine in 2001. “My biggest goal was representing the Library, its mission and holdings, to the best of my parameters,” she says. “My hope is that everyone finds a picture that they respond to.” Anyone can access the Library’s holdings and download free high-resolution images, many of which are public domain; as a result, visitors to the exhibition will be able to view and download their favorite photographs.

At first, Tucker admits, the scope of Not an Ostrich felt a bit overwhelming, but she says she was well prepared by her many years of curatorial experience. In 2012, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) launched a massive exhibition titled “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” alongside a 600 page catalogue. Tucker and her colleagues spent a decade curating the exhibition. In the case of Not an Ostrich, Tucker tells us, “it just came together”—an understatement, to say the least.

The final exhibition features more than 440 photographs representing 148 photographers. The collection spans three centuries and documents both American history, told and untold, and the evolution of photography, from daguerreotypes to digital images. Every photograph is featured on rotating digital screens located throughout Annenberg’s exhibition space, while fifty images are presented as prints.

Many of the pictures remain uncategorized—a fitting choice, considering the original goal of working with the Library’s uncatalogued images. Some of the more iconic selections in the exhibition include: the Wright Brothers’ first flight; the earliest known portrait of Harriet Tubman; Harry Houdini bound in chains for a magic trick; scenes from Vietnam War protests and an image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Unknown. Brünnhilde, 1936. From the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Tucker is quick to add that her work wouldn’t have been possible without the support of hundreds of others, not least of all the Library’s crack team, who she praised highly for their assistance and the great pride they take in their work. Copyrights had to be secured for many images in the show. In one instance, she notes, staff found an obituary for a deceased photographer, went to the church where the funeral had been held, and found the photographer’s family to get their permission—all with help from the church secretary.

Tucker says it was the discovery aspect of the project that excited her most. She enjoyed unearthing incredible and unknown images buried deep in the archives and then researching their context and meaning. “I’ve seen pictures that surprised me from photographers I thought I knew well. Gordon Parks, for example. He made this image of Mohammed Ali’s hands after a fight, bloodied and swollen. It’s just amazing.”

What Represents America?

Juxtapositions are an important part of Not an Ostrich. One wall features Carol Highsmith’s gleaming (and often scenic) images of Americana. “Highsmith’s view of America is a positive one. She has an eye for beauty,” Tucker says, comparing her work to photographers such as Ansel Adams. “It’s an important view, but not the entire view.” To that end, the show juxtaposes Highsmith’s work with a series by Camilo José Vergara. In the series, Vergara photographed a single storefront in various states of success and decay over a 20-year period in New York City. Vergara is known for his more than four decades of work documenting some of the poorest and most segregated urban communities in the United States. The pairing is indicative of the “effort to represent that which represents the diversity of America” that grounded both Tucker’s and the Library’s work.

That said, the exhibition isn’t all serious. “I also want people to have fun,” Tucker says. “There are funny pictures and sweet pictures—poignant images and great beauty. The exhibition, at its core, is about human nature. It’s all here.”

Toni Frissell. Jacqueline Bouvier and John Kennedy on their wedding day, Newport, RI, 1953. From the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

A Pathway to Fluency in Visual Language

Aside from history, discovery and craft, Tucker says there’s another reason to revere the opportunity presented by an exhibition like Not and Ostrich: the show allows for viewers of all kinds to experience pictures in a variety of ways. For Tucker, visual literacy and the storytelling aspect of photography emerge front and center: “We don’t teach [people] how to read images in the same the way we learn to read words. We should.”

—Gina Williams

Not an Ostrich: And Other Images from America’s Library runs from April 21 - September 9, 2018. It marks the first time an exhibition of this scale, with photographs from the Library of Congress, has been displayed on the West Coast.

Through a partnership with StoryCorps, visitors will be invited to step inside an Airstream trailer to interview a friend, family member, or record their own thoughts. Every story told will be submitted for inclusion in the audio archives of the Library of Congress.