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 Paul Vanderbilt (1905-1992) 

Vanderbilt, Paul - Archives of American

Archivist, curator, and photographer, Paul Vanderbilt pioneered new methods of cataloguing visual material. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1905, he attended schools in Germany and Switzerland, studying photography under Clarence H. White, founder of the Photo-Secession movement. He began his studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts before earning a Bachelor’s degree in art history from Harvard University in 1927. In New York City, he worked as a consultant for Weyhe Books, then the leading importer of art books, where he helped many museums, universities, and institutions build up their collections. One of his clients, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, hired him full-time as Librarian and sent him abroad with a substantial budget to expand their reference collection. In preparation for this new position, he studied library science at the American School of Librarianship in Paris and the Institut de Psychologie Bibliogique in Lausanne, Switzerland.


Shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Vanderbilt began working as a records coordinator with the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. The following year, he was selected by Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration-U.S. Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) to catalogue the Administration’s vast photographic collection. The FSA-OWI began as part of the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program devoted to relocating thousands of Americans from agriculturally exhausted farmland to newly-formed greenbelt communities. Vanderbilt helped arrange and classify over 200,000 photographs of tenant farmers and workers during the Great Depression, converting the collection from an agency propaganda project to a permanent historical resource. When the records were transferred to the Library of Congress in 1944, Vanderbilt accompanied them as the first chief of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.


Following the end of hostilities, Vanderbilt was recommended for service with the MFAA by the National Archives and the Office of War Information. He was assigned as Assistant Archives Advisor under Monuments Man Sargent B. Child in Germany. Vanderbilt and Child were responsible for planning and managing the highly involved process of returning millions of looted archival materials to the countries from which they had been stolen. He edited the MFAA’s card file on missing archives and created detailed plans outlining space allocations, time schedules, and priority lists for the Offenbach Archival Depot, the central collecting point for stolen collections of books, archives, and Jewish cultural items. In the course of his duties, he made inspections of many archival collections discovered by the Monuments Men, including the Rothschild Library.


Vanderbilt returned to the Library of Congress in late 1946. He remained in this position until 1954, when he became the first curator of visual materials at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. There, he was tasked with reorganizing and consolidating the photographic collections of the Society’s library and museum divisions into a single collection, the Iconographic Section. Through his efforts, the collection expanded to include over 250,000 items. In addition to his duties as archivist and curator, Vanderbilt acted as a field photographer. He travelled across Wisconsin documenting landscapes, architecture, and everyday scenes from small town life. Many of these images were included in the 1984 Wisconsin Thematic Panels, a collection of ninety-six artfully arranged panels which combined historic images with Vanderbilt’s own photographs and poems. Vanderbilt merged his knowledge of bibliography, art history, photography, poetry, and philosophy to arrange the images in a creative new way which leads the viewer to a deeper understanding of the panel as a whole.


Following his retirement in 1972, Vanderbilt continued exploring the boundaries of photography. He was an artist-in-residence at the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, New York, photographer for the 1975 Seagram Bicentennial Photographic Project, and member of the Visiting Committee of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. In 1983, in tribute to the man who revolutionized their archival collection, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin presented “Photographs as Cultural Resources: A Conference in Honor of Paul Vanderbilt.”


Paul Vanderbilt died in Madison, Wisconsin in 1992. The Paul Vanderbilt Papers, which include his vast collection of photographs, are conserved at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Photo courtesy of the Archives of American Art.

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