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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The National Museum of Photography at the Royal Library, Copenhagen

Ingrid Fischer Jonge
The Royal Library,


At the Royal Library, Copenhagen, The Department of Maps, Prints and Photographs contains a huge collection of important art photography. Because of this collection there have been many attempts to organize a museum of photography during the years. Finnally the 20'th of September 1996 The Royal Library named the new institution "The National Museum of Photography. It shall be located in the new building at the harbourfront called Tha Black Diamond. The history of the collection will be introduced and important old and new photography from the collection will be shown. The further plans for the new museum are under developing and the principle for the work shall be discussed.


The National Museum of Photography at the Royal Library, Copenhagen

On the twentieth of September last year, the Royal Library inaugurated a new museum. Its name is "The National Museum of Photography". We held a large reception in the vestibule of the Royal Library, in which we had also arranged a small exhibition of the photographs that had been donated to the museum to commemorate the event.

This inauguration was actually the implementation of the first stage of a museum project which has been in progress for many years. The next stage will be completed when it moves into its own premises. This will take place in the autumn of 1998, when the Royal Library's large annexe on the harbour front has been completed. This annexe, which will be called "The Black Diamond", or simply "The Diamond", has been drawn by the young Danish firm of architects, Schmidt, Hammer og Lassen. The new building will give the National Museum of Photography exhibition facilities totalling 437 square metres, for special exhibitions and for exhibitions of material taken from its permanent collections. The fourth and fifth stories of the seven storey building will also house a reading room and a store of up to date magazines, respectively.

From the administrative standpoint, the National Museum of Photography is a section of our Department of Maps, Prints and Photographs, and it is the photo historical collection of that department which constitutes the foundation of the National Museum of Photography's permanent collection.

But why do we want a special museum for photography at the Royal Library? Surely the business of a library is books and other readable material, such as manuscripts, letters, medieval manuscripts, sheet music and suchlike. Although there are also traditions of map and print collections, there is no tradition of incorporating a museum of photography into a library. But the answer is quite simple. The Royal Library has one of the finest collections of photographs in Northern Europe. And the general public can only be made aware of this collection through exhibitions, through research and through other museum activities.

Denmark was one of the last of the European countries to discover that photography can also be art. This has been general knowledge for many years abroad. The first museum of photography was inaugurated in the USA in 1929, when the Museum of Modern Art established a special department for photography. Since then, similar initiatives have been taken just about everywhere in western cultural circles, either in the form of special museums or as independent departments in art museums. However, Danish art museums have not evinced any interest in the medium of photography.

Until the last four or five years, the Royal Museum of Fine Art (which is here in Copenhagen) has refused to adopt an attitude to the art of photography. They have now started to buy photographs by our youngest graphic artists and, since both institutions wish to avoid buying similar items, we maintain a close dialogue with the Royal Museum of Fine Art. For one thing, our budgets are not unlimited, and for another, our two institutions are within fifteen minutes' cycling distance of each other.

A number of photographic collections have gradually been built up in the large number of local archives and cultural history museums scattered around the country. But a collection which shows the aesthetic history of photography, from its infancy in about 1839 up to the present day, can only be found in Denmark at the Royal Library.

For the sake of order, I should mention that the Odense local council (on the island of Funen) established its Museum of Photographic Art in 1987. According to its statutes, the Odense museum shall collect photographic art produced after 1945. It is thus defined as a museum of contemporary photography. There is also another small museum of photography. It is located in the town of Herning, in Jutland, and is supported by private funding. It collects photographic equipment in particular.

The Royal Library's collection of photographs, which as a part of the Department of Maps, Prints and Photographs was founded by Bj¢rn Ochsner, who was the head of department from 1945 to 1980. He fully appreciated that, if the collection of photographs was eventually to become the National Picture Archive, and thus its national visual memory, it would be necessary to start collecting photography systematically. And he did this assiduously for thirty five years. He also did it with a great knowledge of the history of photography and with a fine sense for quality, which has ensured the acquisition of many important photographic works by the collection. The collection has gradually been systematised into a portrait collection, a topographical collection and a miscellaneous collection. These collections have since functioned as an image archive. In parallel with this, Ochsner also established a photo historical collection which was intended to serve as a presentation collection, which is to say that a few characteristic works of a photographer's production were chosen to represent that photographer's work in this special collection, while the rest of the photographer's work was spread out in the portrait and topographical collections, et cetera.

It was also Ochsner who took the initiative of establishing a museum dedicated to photography. The result of this was that the Ministry of Cultural Affairs appointed a committee in 1982, which after two years of deliberation decided to recommend the establishment of such a museum, and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs gave this idea its consent in principle. But another 12 years were to elapse before any further action was taken. Last year's inauguration on the twentieth of September indicates that work on the establishment of the museum is now in progress. The agenda for its day to day operation, which is quite distinct from that of a picture archive has also been fixed by assigning it the status of a museum. As is widely known, a picture archive is arranged to satisfy the needs of its users. This means that its photographs are located according to their subjects or motifs. The names of the photographers are of purely secondary importance. In contrast to this, we have museums, where it is the individual work that defines the rules of use. The motif is secondary but the photographer's name is decisive. Storage conditions must be optimum and subordinate to the requirements set by the work, whereas a picture archive is arranged to be comfortable for the user. In other words, the photographs in a picture archive are subordinate to the users, whereas the opposite is true of a museum, where the users are subject to the requirements of its objects.

That is why we have now started to extract the works of well known photographers from the large picture archive and gather them in the museum's collections. This is a protracted process since the picture archive consists of 11 million pictures. But it is also a deeply fascinating process as new, unknown works emerge into the light of day.

For instance, we have found a portrait of Napoleon the Third in the portrait collection. The photographer was the well known French photographer, Disdéri (1819 1889), who obtained a patent for carte de visite photography in 1854 and who cultivated unposed photographs, whic

h became the forerunners of today's snapshots. In the portrait collection, under Benito Mussolini, we found several photographs taken by the renowned German photographer, Erich Salomon (1886 1944). Salomon was among the first photographers to use a miniature camera to take unposed photographs of politicians and high society celebrities in unguarded moments. He hid his camera in his hat, a valise or a potted plant and he used silent shutters and cable releases. We also found two more photographs and now possess a small collection of six prints by Salomon.

This collection will now be registered for the first time. Until we have been through the whole archive we cannot give the exact number of photographs in the collection. Perhaps we will end up with 50,000 prints or more.

We have also established a documentation archive which primarily contains information on Danish photographers, but also on exhibitions on photography at home and abroad. An archive on works has also been established, and it contains information on the individual works in the collection. The purpose of these archives is to concentrate material of relevance to research because, where photo historical research is concerned, we would also like to see more interest in Danish work.

So what does the National Museum of Photography's collection contain?

If we consider the older part of the collection, from the 1800s, we can start with its true gem, "The Pencil of Nature", from 1844. Where printing is concerned, the Gutenberg Bible is considered to be the most precious item a collection can hold. In the history of photography, "The Pencil of Nature" belongs among the finest objects. This work was made by the English photographer, Henry Fox Talbot (1800 1877), who was one of the pioneers of photography. He was a prosperous private citizen who started to experiment with photography as early as 1834 and, in 1840, he succeeded in patenting a method that could produce paper positives from paper negatives. "The Pencil of Nature" is an illustrated book which consists of 24 original calotypes. The calotypes included images of sculpture and drawing, as well as views of Oxford and Paris. The illustrated book was published in an edition of 89 copies, of which only about 12 have survived to the present day, including the example in the National Museum of Photography. The museum also possesses twelve prints dating from between 1843 and 1846, with motifs from England and Italy.

Another noteworthy collection dates from the Crimean War of 1855. This collection consists of 38 photographs taken by the English photographer, Roger Fenton (1819 1869). Although most of the photographs are portraits of army officers, there are also photographs taken on the battlefield, including the famous "Valley of the Shadow of Death", in which a plain is thickly dotted with cannon balls. There are also photographs of the camps and of the port of Balaklava. Roger Fenton had studied at an art school in Paris, where he also became acquainted with photography. But during his time at the art school he realised his limitations as an artist. He therefore returned home to England and became a solicitor, but he continued to take photographs. He embarked on a voyage to the Crimea in 1855, together with two men and a large wagon as a dark room, where he photographed from mid March until the end of June. The Crimean War was waged between Russia and Turkey, and Great Britain and France intervened on the side of Turkey. The Russians were compelled to relinquish Sebastopol in the Crimea. In other words, Fenton had chosen a hectic year for his visit. All the same, his photographs gave a milder description of the horrors of war in their way than did the written accounts, and they were published in portfolios for a period of six months, starting in November, 1855.

When, from March to June, 1862, the Prince of Wales of the day (later King Edward the Seventh) wished to see Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Constantinople, Athens, et cetera, the vice president of the Photographic Society, Francis Bedford (1816 1894) was invited as an attendant. An artist would have been invited before the dawn of the age of photography. A video cameraman would perhaps be invited to attend the journeys of royalty today. Bedford took 210 photographs, of which 172 were published in four volumes in the same year. They are represented in our collection and are in the finest condition.

Another excellently preserved work, which is also the result of a major journey, is French photographer Maxime DuCamp's account, which extends from 1852 to 1854. DuCamp (1822 1894) was a well off author and scientist. Together with French author Gustave Flaubert, he embarked of a three year journey to Egypt, Palestine, Nubia and Syria in 1849. He took an exhaustive course in calotypography prior to his departure, and we know that he took at least 174 photographs. He pasted 126 original photographs into his account of the journey, and the National Museum of Photography's example is bound in green Moroccan leather and it contains DuCamp's dedication to Mathilde Bonaparte, a niece of Napoleon the First. The collection also has individual copies of most of these photographs.

Among the museum's curiosa we can find, for instance, 22 photographs of a typhoon over Hong Kong on the twenty second of September 1874, taken by one W. P. Floyd.

Of the other well known names of the period, of whose work we have one or more examples, we can mention the gifted French portrait photographer, Nadar (1820 1918), the British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 1879), her Scottish colleagues from their artistic circle, David Octavius Hill (1802 1870) and his collaborator, Robert Adamson (1821 1848) and Swedish born G. O. Rejlander (1813 1875).

We also have a collection of about 600 Danish daguerreotypes dating from the early years of the history of photography. Many of them are spread through the portrait collection, which we are now in the process of systematically examining so that we can extract the daguerreotypes. We are not yet aware of the precise number, for this very reason. The daguerreotype takes its name from its inventor, Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who demonstrated his method in Paris, on the seventeenth of September 1839. Although experiments had previously been conducted using different techniques, the photograph is generally considered to date from 1839. Unfortunately, we have no daguerreotypes by the master, himself. All the same, it was possible to read about the technique in a Danish periodical as early as October 1839, and we know that a goldsmith named Christian Piil started to conduct experiments in the spring of 1840. Our renowned countryman, Hans Christian Andersen, allowed his likeness to be captured on daguerreotype at the start of the 1850s by one Frederik Ferdinand Petersen, who had learned the technique in 1845. H. C. Andersen was inordinately fond of being photographed. We have 248 portraits of him and these photographs can be retrieved over the Internet. Much as Rembrandt can be said to be the artist who produced the greatest number of self portraits in the history of art, it could be said that Andersen is the artist who permitted himself to be photographed most often in the Denmark of the 1800s. And, as a rule, he was unsatisfied with the results.

We have a fine collection of pictorialistic photography. The word "pictorialism” is used in connection with a stylistic characteristic and also to refer to specific schools in photography. They first appear around the turn of the century, for instance, the London Photographic Salon, in 1883, and a corresponding French school, the Photo Club de Paris, of which French photographer Robert Demachy (1859 1936) was one of the founders. We have a single photograph by Demachy a street scene from Menton, France, which dates from about 1910. There are also several fine photographs by the Austrian, Heinrich Kühn (1866 1944), who was a member of the Austrian pictorialist school, the Vienna Kamera Club, from 1894. Pictorialism remained a dominant stylistic expression in Denmark far into this century. Modernist photography did not start to make its impact here until the 1930s.

Many excellent international photographers of the twentieth century are represented. In this context, I will only mention Man Ray, who is represented, for instance, by a portrait of André Derain; we have a large collection of the work of German photographer Albert Renger Patzsch, such as an indoor photograph of the Haus des Architekten Schwippert. There is a single photograph by August Sander, the German photographer. This photograph dates from 1928 and is from the period in which he worked hard to gather material for his major photographic project, which he called "Anlitz der Zeit" or "Man in the Twentieth Century". The vast number of portraits of German people was intended to be a kind of documentation of the appearance of Germans in the twentieth century.

This project did not appeal to the Nazis and so they destroyed his negatives. There were too few Aryans in Sander's portraits. We also have a couple of photographs by Bill Brandt, the father of modern documentary photography in England. The one photograph shows some extremely dirty children on the street. It was possibly taken in Sheffield, in February 1948. The other is a winter landscape in Yorkshire, taken in 1945. We would gladly see more of the work of Sander and Brandt in our collection.

We have created a fine collection of the work of Paul Graham, the young English photographer. He is one of the few in the last decade who have succeeded in combining the documentary capabilities of photography with a free interpretation of reality. Conceptual photography stands in contrast to this trend. It is represented in our collection by the young Icelander, Olafur Eliason, of whose work we also possess several copies. He works with such concepts as recollection and identity, often visualised through the Icelandic landscape.

In his day, Bj¢rn Ochsner had plans for giving the museum of photography an encyclopaedic quality, which would of course mean that a little of the whole of photography history would be represented in the collection. We hold another view of the encyclopaedic concept today, since it can very easily degenerate into "a bit of everything" and, thus, nothing at all. If a collection is have substance it is also vital to be able to follow a given artist's various forms of expression over the years. Obviously, it is something of an achievement to have one of August Sander's photographs in our collection, but if there were more of his works the viewer would gain a better impression of the psychological insight with which Sander is gifted and, perhaps, realise that it is precisely that insight which is the foundation of all his work.

On the other hand, we have blazed a trail. That is why we wish to reinforce such trails over the coming years, rather than to break new ground. At the same time, we want to keep an eye on the foreign photography that has influenced the Danish school. French American photographer William Klein is a good example of this. Although we have only acquired one of his works so far, we hope to build up a larger collection with the passage of time.

Klein is known for his expressive form language, which he formulated as long ago as the 1950s. It was brutally different in comparison with the conventional photography of the day, and this new image language influenced one of our own talented young photographers, Jesper H¢m. He absorbed it like a sponge and introduced this new photography to the Danish public. And his younger Danish colleagues soon followed suit. We still need to write a Danish photographic history. Although we know parts of it, such as the story of Klein and H¢m, much still remains to be clarified.

On its way into the 21st century, the Royal Library has made a good start on digitalising its collections. The Department of Maps, Prints and Photographs’ large collection is undergoing digitalisation and it is possible to retrieve new images over the Internet for every day that passes. Thus, anyone who has access to the Internet can find images representing just about any subject. We digitalise the photographs in high and low resolution versions. Only the low resolution versions are put on the network, and if a copy is needed for a publication, it is still necessary to order a copy from the Royal Library, either in digital form or as an ordinary photographic copy. That is how we try to maintain contact with our customers, while ensuring that the laws of copyright are observed.

We are similarly in the throes of digitalising and registering the National Museum of Photography's collection. We use the Royal Library's REX system for registration, which has proved to be an extremely difficult nut to crack as the REX system is designed for books. So far, we have digitalised and registered a couple of thousand photographs. This makes it possible to retrieve them over the Internet, where they constitute a temporary catalogue of our stock. Our registration is scanty and brief. The great detailed descriptive catalogue must wait until we know the content more precisely than is possible today.

But this is nevertheless a fantastic period to be a part of. We stand with our hands buried as deeply in the clay as any sculptor. And, as with the sculptor, we have an idea of the form that we wish the National Museum of Photography to assume. We are calmly and steadily working towards that form.