CU Boulder Libraries Acquires Major Photographic Collection

The University of Colorado Boulder Libraries announces the acquisition of the Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection. Consisting of approximately 7,000 original photographs in addition to approximately 7,000 publications, largely from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the collection offers a major scholarly resource for the study of the history of photography. In conjunction with the Libraries’ existing photobook holdings, the Wolff Collection provides the University with not only one of the largest collections of photographic publications in the country but also one of the broadest in scope. Photography has historically been a medium primarily of the printed page rather than the gallery wall, and the photobook—a unique genre in its own right—is indispensable to any study of photography. Beginning with the 1991 acquisition of the David H. Tippit Photobook Collection, the Libraries established one of the largest collections of twentieth-century photobooks in the country. Now, with the acquisition of the Wolff Collection, the Libraries can offer scholars a comprehensive and nearly-unparalleled resource for the study of nineteenth-century photography.

The Wolff collection contains a wealth of primary source material offering insight into the invention of photography, the scientific and technical components of its development, the history of photomechanical printing, vernacular photographic practices, and the medium’s role in social and cultural documentation. Highlights from the collection of original photographs range from an 1844 photograph by one of the inventors of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, to numerous travel albums from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries by both amateur and well-known professional photographers alike. Publications in the collection trace the pre-history of photography in the eighteenth century and continue through the development of all stages and types of photomechanical printing in the nineteenth century.  In addition to furthering scholarship in such areas as the history of photography and visual studies, the Wolff Collection will also serve a wide range of disciplines not only in the humanities but also the social sciences and sciences.

The acquisition has already attracted significant interest among campus teaching faculty. Alex Sweetman, Associate Professor in the department of Art and Art History commented, “This momentous acquisition helps fulfill a longstanding mission to build a collection on the totality of vision, one that provides a comprehensive index to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Associate Professor in Film Studies, Melinda Barlow, recently included numerous holdings from the Wolff Collection in Primal Seen, an exhibition of photography she curated for the CU Art Museum. For Barlow, “With its memorial albums, lenticular photographs, hand-colored portraits, and stereoscopic slides, the Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection is an invaluable resource because it expands our understanding of photography as a medium in which artistic, commercial and vernacular forms are inextricably intertwined.  Its many commemorative images, some of them inscribed, remind us that photographs are precious objects held in the hand and meant to be touched, and endowed by successive generations with deeply personal–and thus cultural–significance.”

Ira Wolff, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut, acquired the collection over the course of several decades from bookstores and dealers throughout the United States and Europe. Now retired, Mr. Wolff worked as an executive at NBC in the mid 1950’s to 1960’s before embarking on a career in direct marketing. A longtime former member of the Grolier Club, the New York City bibliophile society, Mr. Wolff first amassed a 6,500 item mystery collection, which now resides at the University of California San Diego. He turned his attention to photography after meeting the renowned curator, collector, and companion to Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff, through his service on the Grolier Club’s exhibition committee. Mr. Wolff, who describes his collecting strategy as “strongly amorphous,” built his photographic history collection in broad strokes, beginning with any book containing tipped-in salt or albumen prints and then moving outward to nearly all manifestations of photographic and photomechanical practice.

The University Libraries is currently in the planning stages for the cataloging and archival processing of the collection. Future plans for the collection also include exhibitions, select digitization, and curriculum integration. Interested researchers are advised to contact the Special Collections unit of the Department of Archives and Special Collections.


  1 comment for “CU Boulder Libraries Acquires Major Photographic Collection

  1. Amanda Brown
    December 11, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Special Collections now has an exhibition up in it’s reading room that highlights portraiture from the Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection. The exhibition is open to the public Thursday and Friday afternoons through May 10th.

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