The history of photography at the Smithsonian Institution dates from the 1850s. In 1859, Secretary Joseph Henry proposed that a photographic record be assembled of Native American delegations visiting Washington, D.C. In 1867, with the support of Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist, and William H. Blackmore, a wealthy English collector and speculator, Washington photographers Alexander Gardner and Antonio Zeno Shindler began photographing the Native American delegates. These images and others formed the earliest Smithsonian photograph collection.
In 1883, the Section of Photography was established in the Department of Preparation, with Thomas William Smillie as photographer. Smillie, a former photographer at the United States Fish Commission, had been employed by the Institution as its official photographer since 1870. Smillie was named custodian of the Section in 1896, but also continued to function as the Institution's photographer until his death in 1917. His successors also retained these dual responsibilities until 1943, when the duties were separated and Gurney I. Hightower became the Institution's official photographer.
In 1897, the Section became a part of the Division of Graphic Arts, where it remained until 1969. At that time, the Division was redesignated Graphic Arts and Photography. In 1972, the two functions divided, and the Division of Photographic History was established in the Department of Applied Arts. At that time, Eugene N. Ostroff, associate curator and curator of photography under the previous divisions, was made curator of photographic history. Successively, the Division was affiliated with the Department of History of Technology, 1978-1980, and then the Department of the History of Science and Technology.
The Division of Photographic History and its predecessors primarily documented the history of photographic science and technology in America since the nineteenth century. The Division collected cameras, patent models, motion picture apparatus, and photographs such as daguerreotypes, tintypes, and calotypes.
Curators and staff of the Division included Thomas W. Smillie, photographer, 1871-1895, custodian and photographer, 1896-1917; Loring W. Beeson, custodian and photographer, 1917-1920; Arthur J. Olmsted, custodian and photographer, 1920-1930, assistant curator and photographer, 1931-1941, associate curator and photographer, 1942, associate curator, 1943-1946; Alexander I. Wedderburn, associate curator, 1947-1960; Eugene N. Ostroff, associate curator of photography, 1960-1966, curator, 1966-1972, curator of photographic history, 1972- , and David E. Haberstich, assistant curator, 1970-1976.