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When you’re rooting around in the nation’s attic, as the Smithsonian Institution is sometimes called, you’re pretty much destined to find a forgotten treasure or two. For proof, consider the just-published book At First Sight: Photography and the Smithsonian, edited by Merry A. Foresta.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Foresta, a senior curator who’s worked at the Smithsonian for a quarter-century, was tapped to head up a nascent photography center that will bring together the wide range of photographic collections that had long been gathering dust at the institution.

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For Foresta, simply learning what the Smithsonian had tucked away in its nooks and corridors was difficult enough. Years earlier, amid one of the Smithsonian’s periodic efforts to get its photographic house in order, the institution asked an employee named Diane Vogt-O’Connor to conduct a thorough inventory of its collections. Vogt-O’Connor ended up publishing a four-volume study, but acquisitions and expansions made by curators while she was working on the project rendered it out of date by the time it was published.

Today, the acquisitions continue unabated, from Mars-orbiter downloads to X-ray scans of mummified fish. And Foresta ran across an additional problem: colleagues who assumed, wrongly, that they had nothing of interest for her. In one case, a curator suddenly remembered a collection of several dozen images of trees, each encased in a frame made of wood from the type of tree pictured. Though they had been made in the ’30s by an amateur photographer (and later donated to the National Museum of American History), the images “reminded me of a conceptual-art project that you could imagine a contemporary photographer doing,” Foresta says.

Unlike the tree photographs, most of the images in At First Sight were never intended for framing or hanging. Cyanotype images—made with the same “blueprint” process used by architects for generations—were long relied upon by Smithsonian curators as a cheap and efficient way of keeping track of the museum’s holdings. Though not made for public consumption, the ethereal blue photographs are—to Foresta’s trained eye—valuable examples of art themselves. One century-old set of cyanotypes featuring a cluster of minimalist lines is especially gorgeous. It took some head-scratching before specialists realized what the series depicted: Japanese kite frames.

The photographers who created such pictures “were doing a job well and getting paid for it, and some were better than others,” Foresta says. “But early photographers were running a business, and the word ‘art’ most likely was not used. What I find so fascinating about a project like this is that it allows you to repurpose photographs that had been made for one reason but are now useful for another.”

Growing up on Long Island, Foresta, now 51, had no interest in photography. But after studying art, she joined what would later be named the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a painting expert. In 1983, she was asked to curate the museum’s then-modest photography collection. From that perch, Foresta, a Capitol Hill resident, organized a string of major exhibitions and catalogs, tackling subjects ranging from Man Ray to early daguerreotypes to Irving Penn’s fashion photography to American landscapes.

In her current position, Foresta is paying close attention to the challenges of preserving the Smithsonian’s aging collections, possibly through digitization. But prioritizing the work remains sticky. “Are the most important works the ones that are in the most jeopardy?” she says. “Are they the most beautiful ones in conventional art terms? If you have a collection of automobile photographs, do the images of the most important cars take precedence over the best photograph of one? Or is the most income-generating picture the most important? If I ask 10 different collection managers which is most important, I get 10 different answers.” —Louis Jacobson