The National Museum of African Art is dedicated exclusively to the collection, study, and exhibition of African art. The museum's primary aim is to foster and sustain public understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures and arts of Africa through exhibitions, collections, research and public programs. As part of the museum, the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives is a research and reference center devoted to collection, preservation, and access of visual materials that encourage and support the study of the arts, cultures and history of Africa. The Archives is a unique repository for materials illuminating the history of photography and photographic practices in Africa. Its collections contain over 350,000 items, including historic collections of glass plate negatives, cartes-de-visite, lantern slides, photographic albums, stereographs, postcards, maps and engravings. The Archives staff works with art historians, anthropologists, photographers, filmmakers and other specialists in acquiring and preserving these visual resources.
Eliot Elisofon, for whom the Archives was named, was an internationally known photographer and filmmaker whose enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1972 was published in magazines such as Life and the National Geographic. As a filmmaker, he worked on film and television projects including the Black African Heritage Series (1972), a four-part documentary on African arts and cultures. Elisofon's association with the National Museum of African Art began as a founding trustee in 1964. Upon his death in 1973, Elisofon donated his African materials to the museum, including over 50,000 black and white negatives and photographs, 30,000 color slides, and 120,000 feet of motion picture film and sound materials. The bequest became the foundation for the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.
Since 1973, the Elisofon Archives has grown to include over 180,000 slides and color transparencies and 80,000 black and white negatives and photographs. The holdings are divided into two major categories: art photographs, which show African works of art in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art and other museums and galleries; and field photographs, which depict art and life in Africa. The field photographs, comprised of over 200 collections, contain images of African artists, leadership, masquerades, architecture and natural landscapes, and reflect the work of both western and indigenous photographers. The most outstanding field collection is the work of photographer Eliot Elisofon, whose images primarily focus on artistic expression in West and Central Africa. Other major collections include 3,000 black and white photographs of rural and urban life in South Africa by Constance Stuart Larrabee during the 1930s and 1940s; over 10,000 slides depicting Yoruba art and culture by Henry John Drewal and Margaret Thompson Drewal; field slides and motion picture films of Igbo peoples taken in Nigeria by Simon Ottenberg; and a historical collection of approximately 16,000 postcards representing every region of Africa. Special collections include late nineteenth and early twentieth century photographic albums with significant anthropological and art historical research value.
Records of the collections of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives are accessible online through SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System. To search for catalogue records and electronic resources on SIRIS, go to www.siris.si.edu and click on "Search Archival, Manuscript and Photographic Collections". Conduct searches by general keywords or browse images in the Image Gallery. Under Smithsonian Repositories, click on "Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives" and browse images by countries, subjects, or cultural groups. Over 30,000 images from Eliot Elisofon's field collection are currently on display in SIRIS.
The Archives is open to the public by appointment only, Tuesday through Thursday, 10 am – 4 pm, with the exception of federal holidays. All requests for permission to use images must be submitted in writing (by email, letter or fax) and are subject to approval. Fees are charged for one-time usage and pre-payment is required on all photographic orders. For a current list of fees and services, please contact the Archives.
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20560
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
P.O. Box 37012
NMAfA, MRC 708
Washington, DC 20013-7012