When the Beinecke security guard points me toward the “Power of Pictures” exhibit, I give him a big smile and my thanks, and then take off enthusiastically — in the wrong direction. I’m a rare visitor in this library, and it shows. Luckily, the security guard seems used to newcomers, and when I freeze, turn around and walk guiltily past his desk to the other side of the building, he just smiles.
“Power of Pictures” is the last of three full-building exhibitions to commemorate the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s 50th anniversary. It celebrates of the breadth and depth of the Beinecke’s collection. And, in the space where we are used to find text, it features images from countless corners of the library’s archives. To that end, a plethora of paintings, drawings and photographs have been displayed throughout the building.
A presentation this ambitious could easily overwhelm, and I’ll admit that this is how I felt when I found that the information booklet had a spine. But once tamed by the Beinecke curators, the exhibit is a creature of the large and friendly sort. Images are clustered by broad themes that trace more than a dozen aspects of human experience. From the first theme, “Marking Places,” I realize that the Beinecke will do this beautifully. “Marking Places” follows the importance of locations in the human narrative, spanning from a photograph of Utah cave drawings to Saul Steinberg’s preliminary sketch for a 1976 New Yorker cover, “A View of the World from 9th Avenue.” This slice captures only a small sample of the variety this archive has to offer, but it does so with cohesion. The Beinecke has found a place for everything, be it in “Domestic Scenes,“ “Scientific Illustration” or “Marking Our Bodies.”
The exhibit attempts to generate fresh enthusiasm for the Beinecke’s collection, and it succeeds, hands-down. For art fiends and lost freshmen alike, “Power of Pictures” offers something unexpected. I would never have guessed that the Beinecke owns an illustrated copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the sketches of a Metropolitan Opera costume designer or a watercolor painting of American ships descending on a Japanese harbor in 1854. I’m surprised to learn that an 1882 lithograph of the Grand Canyon is in fact a scientific drawing by Yale-trained geologist Clarence Dutton. He wanted to capture the rock detail in a way that cameras then could not. Other images are rewarding for their visual force alone, such as David Plowden’s breathtaking photograph of the “Statue of Liberty from Caven Point Road.” The photograph stashes the iconic symbol of American freedom behind a haze of fog, telephone poles and debris, making an uncomfortable statement about the United States’ neglect of its values and heritage.
Almost as critical to the exhibit as the images themselves is the grace with which “Power of Pictures” harnesses the mystique of the Beinecke building. Pieces are displayed in glass cases on the ground floor and around the Mezzanine level, guiding visitors around and up Yale’s architectural landmark. Larger pieces hang from the tower walls, almost ghostlike beneath the soft lighting, tempting the observer to consider what else sits in the archives behind the glass. The Beinecke utilizes its own space with confidence, and visiting “Power of Pictures” for the self-guided walking tour alone is worth it.
Most importantly, “Power of Pictures” wants to make us feel welcome at the Beinecke. It calls visitors old and new to embrace the resources of that the library has to offer, and to realize that it holds more than dusty manuscripts. It reminds us that we should not be afraid to be newcomers. This fall, “Power of Pictures” calls us to be just that — to find a place to start, and then to come back, again and again.