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A sampling of the Photo Archvies, which holds clost to one million images.

A Century of Service with the U.S. Navy Photo Archive

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division

January 2019 marked the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Navy’s Photo Archive, currently held at the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard. The Navy’s collection of historical records predates the National Archives (established in 1934) and originally began in the Office of Naval Records and Library (NR&L). The first expansion of the activities of the Historical Section had been the establishment on Jan. 1, 1919 of a Pictorial Branch whose purpose was to collect and file under proper references photographs illustrating activities of U.S. and foreign navies. A follow-up in the form of an ALNAV 86 dated March 14, 1919 requested that copies of photographs and motion pictures of naval activities, ships, bases, personnel, and incidents taken during the war be forwarded to the Historical Section. Subsequently a letter over the signature of the Secretary of the Navy addressed to all Bureaus stated:

A sampling of the Photo Archvies. Our entire holdings consist of approximately one million photographs dating as early as the Civil War.

“A photographic Division of the Historical Section has been established, in which will be gathered and filed all the photographs of historic interest taken of Naval activities during the war. As the issuance of a Pictorial History of the War is contemplated, it is desirable for the Historical Section to have copies of all Navy photographs of interest; and it is requested that each Bureau furnish to the Historical Section, Room 1732, Navy Department, two copies of all such photographs it has, and that each contractor who was engaged in Navy work be requested to furnish such photographs.”

The Photo Archive, in its current state, is part of the Histories and Archives Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command. The Photo Archive’s collections are related to the U.S. Navy (or other navies when specifically associated with U.S. involvement or historical events) with specific emphasis on ships, aviation, places, wars/events, activities, and significant individuals associated with naval history. Photographs in the collection reflect both official and unofficial naval viewpoints and consist of mostly private donations by the general public. The general date range of the collection is from the mid-19th century to the 1990s, with particular focus on the World War II era. Our entire holdings consist of approximately one million photographs dating as early as pre Civil War. Formats include daguerreotype, ambrotype, carte de visite, cyanotype, glass plate negatives, prints, transparencies, slides, and negatives.

Given that the photographs donated to the Naval History and Heritage Command are generally personal photography, taken by the Sailors themselves, the collection offers a more personal viewpoint of life in the Navy. The images show the sometimes monotonous, day-to-day aspects of Sailors’ lives as well as the horrors of war and their aftermath. So, given we now have a century-old collection with almost 1 million pieces, we asked the three photo archivists, “what are your favorites??,” and received three very differnt answers!

Lisa Crunk, Lead Photo Archivist

Bailey, the mascot of the American aviators stationed at Le Croisic, France. Courtesy of Leicester Roberts. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Our collection is filled with truly amazing and unique photography that spans U.S. naval history, but it is the images that bring people together on a more personal level that I have an appreciation for – the things that remind you of everyday life back home. Sailors come from all walks of life; having varied backgrounds, different beliefs or religions, but it seems that everybody loves animals. By the 19th century, animals were kept as pets and mascots aboard ships and at shore stations. All types of creatures could be found roaming the decks of Navy ships, from the mundane (dogs, cats, and birds) to the bizarre (kangaroos, monkeys, and bears). My favorite photos in the archive are those of mascots, with one in particular – Bailey. Baily was the mascot of the American aviators stationed at the naval air station at Le Croisic, France during WWI (Catalog # UA 43.07). How can a little dog dressed in aviator goggles and a cape not be the best image ever?!

Dave Colamaria, Photo Archivist

I particularly enjoy the early 20th century photography of Enrique Muller and his son Enrique Muller, Jr. The pair had a knack for capturing interesting scenes, whether it be a battleship underway throwing up a huge bow wave, or a group of Sailors drilling or goofing around. The Mullers comprehensively documented life in our rapidly growing Navy of the early 1900s. To view all the images we have from the Mullers, click here.

USS Arizona (BB 39) In the East River, New York City, at the time of her trials, circa mid-1916. She is accompanied by many tugs, and has small pine trees mounted in her mast tops. Tug Hudson is in the lower center. Photographed by Enrique Muller, Jr. Courtesy of Sid Taylor, 1983. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.


Jon Roscoe, Photo Archivist

My favorite collection in the Photo Archive is the RADM Robert Quackenbush Photo Collection because it shows the growing importance of naval photography within the larger U.S. Navy. Quackenbush, a 1927 graduate of the Naval Academy, was the first head of naval photography at NAS Anacostia. During WWII, he led a group of photographers known as “Quackenbush’s Gypsies” that were given free rein to travel throughout the Pacific to photograph the Navy’s actions. He took photographs during the Atomic tests at Bikini in 1946 and eventually served as commanding officer of USS Randolph (CV 15) and NAS Key West. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. To view some of the images from the Quackenbush Collection, click here.

RADM Robert Quackenbush’s Gypsies with equipment in the South Pacific. Courtesy of RADM Robert Quackenbush. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.