Compiling the nation's photo album Book: Photo editor Vincent Virga and the curators of the Library of Congress culled images from its Special Collections for this volume celebrating the collections' centennial.

December 15, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Vincent Virga has researched, edited and designed picture sections for a couple of hundred books, from John Wayne's "America, Why I Love Her," to Thomas Hoving's "Tutankhamen," to Miles Davis' autobiography, to Jane Fonda's workout book, right up to Kitty Kelley's brand-new "The Royals."

But he has never before come up against any project quite so daunting as the Special Collections of the Library of Congress. That includes just about everything the national library holds except its traditional books. And that's a lot of stuff.

"Do you know what they are, the Special Collections?" asks Virga, a high-energy New Yorker whose every sentence crackles with the urgency of a guy on 42nd Street trying to catch a cab.

"I didn't know what they were when I came here. They're the stuff you can't put on a general bookshelf. Lots of things in boxes and in big sliding drawers."

About 100 million "things," as a matter of fact. From a letter written by Christopher Columbus to photographs of the Great Depression to a watercolor painting of George Gershwin writing "Porgy and Bess."

Virga, a free-lance photo editor, came here to put together a book celebrating the centennial of the Special Collections, which officially date from the opening in 1897 of the library's opulent beaux-arts Thomas Jefferson Building, just behind the Capitol next to the Supreme Court.

He's labored heroically to lead the team that produced this season's most transcendent coffee-table book, "Eyes of the Nation," a stunningly handsome, 4-pound-1-ounce, 9-by-12-inch, 400-page, $75 volume packed with 500 images that document "the visual history of the United States." It's a Book of the Month Club and History Book Club selection.

Three years ago Virga faced the problem of sorting through a truly astounding numbers of "things":

50 million of those things in the manuscript division alone, including the personal papers of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln and 18 more, plus the letters of foot soldiers from every war, journals of westbound pioneers, logs of whaling ships.

4.25 million maps, 53,000 atlases, 700,000 microfilm images, 300 globes, 2,000 terrain models and 1.6 million aerial photos in the geography and map division.

13 million prints and negatives in the photography collections, including the first self-portrait taken in the United States (by Robert Cornelius, in 1839, less then a year after Daguerre announced his invention of photography). It's on the book jacket.

2 million architectural drawings, prints and photographs.

8 million musical manuscripts, prints, hymnals, instruments (such as violins made by Stradivari and Guarneri), and archival collections from the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein and jazz musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Charles Mingus.

200,000 motion-picture films, 125,000 television broadcasts, 500,000 radio shows and 1.7 million sound recordings.

100,000 posters from Toulouse-Lautrec to art deco to Woodstock and beyond.

5,700 incunabula -- that splendid word for books printed before 1501 -- in the rare-book division (which also includes the Walt Whitman Collection).

"It's amazing," Virga says. "It drives you crazy. What do you do?!!"

He turned to the library's curators.

"I'm a great picture researcher," he says, without undue modesty. He is the picture editor publishers routinely turn to when they want to put together pictures in a book. "But the thing that makes the book special is that they did it. No one could have found what they found. Basically it became a kind of treasure hunt for them. It was a lot of the stuff they had seen that never had been seen before [in a book]."

So the book is now signed: "By Vincent Virga and the Curators of the Library of Congress," with "Historical Commentary by Alan Brinkley," a Columbia University historian. Thirteen curators contributed essays about their collections.

"To work with a group like the curators is like being in a state of grace, because when you're with them you just have a sense of their passion, their knowledge," says Virga.

He asked them to bring out the most wonderful things they had ever seen in their collections.

"What do you love most? Show me. Show me."

They brought forth images that would end up in the book: a 1590 drawing of an Eden-like Indian village in Virginia; the hand-drawn watercolor map of General Rochambeau's encampment in Baltimore before he marched on to Yorktown; the poster offering a $100,000 reward for John Wilkes Booth; the portrait of the Sioux Indian delegation to Washington in 1891; the poster advertising "Edison's Greatest Marvel, The Vitascope," the beginning of movies; a photo of troops landing on Normandy in World War II; the wedding portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy; an engineering drawing of the Starship Enterprise.

In the beginning, the curators wondered how everything would fit together.

"I said the stuff will tell us. It will fit itself together."

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