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Great Photographs from the US Library of Congress


What if you were asked to choose just 730 photographs from among 1.25 million images? And you had just a few months in which to complete the project.

Most people would say it could not be done.

Aimee Hess is not “most people.”

“When this project originated, I just sort of, you know, raised my hand and said ‘me, me, me’!”

Aimee Hess served as the editor of a book called “Great Photographs from the Library of Congress.” She is a writer and editor in the publishing division of the Library of Congress here in Washington, DC. The Library is the country’s oldest federal cultural institution. It was founded in 1800.

A Difficult Job...

During her time at the Library of Congress, Ms. Hess had worked on many projects and books about photography collections. She became known as an expert on such books. But she had never worked on something as big as the iBook project. It was made available to iPad users late last year.

“I, I looked at a lot of photographs, yeah, so, yeah in the collection there’s more than 12 million items -- and this is just in the Prints and Photographs Division -- but because we were working on an eBook I decided to only look through the, the photographs that had been digitized, and so we estimate that at about one and a quarter million photographs. And I wouldn’t say I looked at every single one, but I definitely looked at a good 50 to 60,000 photographs.”

She needed several months to look at all those pictures. She looked at 20 to 100 small images at one time on a computer screen. Every day she looked at several thousand photographs. She says her work days were sometimes long and difficult.

“So, there were definitely some days where, you know, by the end of the day I just thought ‘Oh my God, I can’t look at a photograph ever again,’ but most of the time it was just really a pleasurable, you know, fun experience.”

After looking at tens of thousands of pictures, Aimee Hess saved between 6,000 and 10,000 of them. Now came the hard part: choosing just 730 to put into the iBook. It took her six weeks to make those decisions.

“Which, let me tell you, was agonizing, because I just, I liked them all so much. You know, there’s certain photos that you just fall in love with. And, and, you know, I had to cut so many photos that I just thought were great.”

Was There Criticism of Her Choices? Surprisingly, No

Ms. Hess says she expected criticism of her choices -- questions such as “Why did you choose that photograph?” or “Why didn’t you include this one?” But they never came.

“You know, you can’t please everyone with a book like this -- especially when there’s just so much material I could have included. But actually it’s been more, the comments have been more positive, just ‘Oh wow, these images are amazing.’ A lot of readers, you know, have said they had no idea that the Library of Congress had images like this. And so that, that’s, you know, exactly what we wanted -- we wanted people to realize that we have these in our collection, and that these images are for everybody, they’re for the public. You know, they’re, you can use these images. So, it, it’s been really positive. Nobody’s really complained about, or nitpicked. I think people are just happy that we did it.”

The work of some of the most-famous photographers in U.S. history is included in the iBook. But Ms. Hess says most of the pictures are from people like you and me.

“The bulk of the book are these unknown photographers, and their photographic contributions are just as important and just as interesting and compelling as, you know, these, these household names, so I think it’s really nice that we’re giving them their due.”

What Makes a Good Photograph...

She says a good photograph makes you want to look at the image again and again. You want to keep it. It pulls you into it. It makes you want to walk into it and join it.

“First and foremost I wanted, just something that you look at it and you immediately think ‘Oh that’s interesting,’ or, or something that you look at it for a split-second and you look away and then you have to look back at it because you might have, you know, you think ‘Wait, what was that I just saw?’ Or, and so, you know I was really looking for photographs that moved me, that had action, that were beautiful but also, you know, I, I tended to look for photographs that represented, you know, historical events.”

The iBook was released last November. Ms. Hess says at one time it was the top-selling photography iBook in Apple’s online store. It costs just $5.99 on iTunes. More than 100 have been sold. But if more people knew about the book, she says, many more would be sold.

Photographs From Many Years Ago and Today

The photographs start from earlier times but include recent images, too. There are eight chapters: The World and Its Cultures; American Indians; African-Americans; Images of America; Accidents and Disasters; Architecture, Design and Engineering; War; and, Famous People. Because it is an iBook, there are computer addresses, or links, that permit the reader to go online to learn more about the pictures. Included are pictures of people who have changed the world and events that have changed history.

Aimee Hess says the technology of e-publishing enables the Library of Congress to make a book that more people can buy and with more images than a printed version would have.

“If we had done this book in print, I think it likely would have contained fewer than half as many photos and it would have been one of those big, bulky, heavy art books. And, you know, I estimate that would probably sell for about $75.”

Ms. Hess says she hopes that, in the future, the iBook will also be available as an eBook. That way, people who do not use Apple computers or other Apple devices will be able to enjoy it.

Is There Another "Great Photographs" iBook Coming?

Will there be a second iBook with more pictures from the Library of Congress? Aimee Hess is not so sure. But if there is, she says, she already has a lot of pictures to choose from to include in it.

“It would be great to do a Volume Two. I mean, I have enough castoffs that I could easily put together, you know, more volumes.”

Of the thousands of pictures she looked at, which one is her favorite?

“Well, I’ll never pick one favorite, so I’ll have to pick a few favorites.”

One of them is a picture from Denali National Park in Alaska. She says it is one of the most-beautiful pictures she has ever seen. We’ve put it -- and five more of her favorite photos -- on our website: learningenglish.voanews.com

I’m Christopher Cruise.

VOA correspondent Christopher Cruise reported and wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow edited it.

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Words in This Story

collect/collection - v. to bring or gather together in one place; to demand and receive (“collect taxes”)

iBook - n. an electronic book that can only be read using Apple Computer company devices

eBook - n. an electronic book that can be read on a computer or other electronic devices

difficult - adj. not easy; hard to do, make or carry out

complain - v. to say or write that you are unhappy, sick, uncomfortable, or that you do not like something

Now it’s your turn to use these Words in This Story. In the comments section, write a sentence using one of these words and we will provide feedback on your use of vocabulary and grammar.

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