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About this collection

Paul Vanderbilt (1905-1992) was one of the country's most respected scholars in the field of photography and archives. The 96 thematic panels available here, containing 799 individual photographs, represent the culmination of a half-century of thinking about how pictures work.


After serving as librarian for the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1929 to 1941, Vanderbilt was hired to organize the immense image collections produced by the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, as well as those created later by the War Information Office. When those records moved to the Library of Congress in 1946, he accompanied them as the first chief of the Library's Prints and Photographs Division. In 1954, he moved to the Wisconsin Historical Society to become its first curator of visual materials.

Vanderbilt combined his interests in photography, art history, bibliographic control, archival theory, and poetry to enable new and innovative ways to understand visual materials. One of his fundamental beliefs was that the life of a picture begins when it is completed, and that what happens to it after that is both more important and more interesting than the circumstances of its creation. He retired in 1972 but continued to take photographs and work with historical images until his death in 1992.

The Thematic Panels

This Wisconsin Thematic Panels gallery is a collection of 96 panels containing 799 images gathered from collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Included on each panel is at least one of Vanderbilt’s own landscape photographs and a short poem by him which attempts to guide the viewer to a personal understanding of the panel as a whole. He began selecting and grouping images in the mid-1960s and continued working on the project for the rest of his life. In later years, he simplified his approach into pairings of images, work that culminated in his posthumous book, “Between the Landscape and its Other” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Vanderbilt had experimented earlier with multi-image groupings to illustrate historical narratives, but this project was his first major use of that format. His goal was to give viewers the freedom to interpret for themselves the meanings in each assemblage of photographs and text.

Traditionally, historical images had been used primarily for documentary purposes and were valued for their factual information (people, places, dates, and events). The Wisconsin Thematic Panels, in contrast, were experimental. Vanderbilt intentionally omitted factual information in order to allow the viewer space to react and respond in other ways. In a separate file, he did create an elaborate index to the individual images to enable traditional access. He also provided access through much more subjective characteristics such as emotional responses, popular wisdom, cultural issues, philosophical viewpoint, and mythological references conveyed by each image.

Viewing the Thematic Panels

Each viewer will interpret the panels differently. Although every image can be studied by itself, Vanderbilt intended that each group should be examined as a whole and the entire series considered as a single work.

When looking at the Wisconsin Thematic Panels, consider the following questions:

  • Find similar images on the panel. What similar themes do these images convey?
  • What does the text add to the overall theme of the panel?
  • How does the layout of the images affect the panel’s meaning?


View All Thematic Panels


Audio and Text

In addition to the 96 panels shown here, we have included audio recordings of Vanderbilt discussing his intentions and a paper he gave at a conference of the Society of Photographic Education describing the project.

The 15 audio recordings contain Vanderbilt’s conversations with staff at the Wisconsin Historical Society, writers, professors, and students. He talks about the themes of 12 of the panels, as well as sharing his thoughts on the overall project. The audio is best appreciated while viewing the panels being discussed. Click on the link below any panel’s first image to open an audio recording; if there is no link, no audio exists. See a list of all recordings.

Vanderbilt’s paper, “The Wisconsin Project: Reflections on Photography and History,” describes the process behind the collection, his initial conception and its evolution, and his goal to present historical images abstractly. Although Vanderbilt does not explicitly reveal the intended themes of each panel, he does provide guidelines that can be used to help interpret their meanings. In the end, however, he probably felt that his intended meanings were less important than those that arise inside the viewer.

For more information, see the image essay, “Paul Vanderbilt's Wisconsin Thematic Panels - Image Gallery Essay

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