Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection expands Libraries' photographic holdings

Published: Jan. 2, 2013

With 14,000 original photographs and publications largely from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the recently acquired Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection offers a major scholarly resource for the study of the history of photography.

Highlights from the collection of original photographs range from an 1844 photograph by the inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, to numerous travel albums from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Publications in the collection trace the pre-history of photography in the eighteenth century and continue through the development of all stages and types of photomechanical printing in the nineteenth century.

Considered in conjunction with the Libraries’ existing photobook holdings, the Wolff Collection provides the university with one of the largest collections of photographic publications in the country, as well as one of the broadest in scope. Beginning with the 1991 acquisition of the David H. Tippit Photobook Collection, the Libraries established one of the largest collections of twentieth-century photobooks in the country.

In addition to furthering scholarship in such areas as the history of photography and visual studies, the Wolff Collection will also serve a wide range of disciplines not only in the humanities but also the social sciences and sciences.  

Melinda Barlow, associate professor in film studies, recently included numerous holdings from the Wolff Collection in Primal Seen, an exhibition of photography she curated for the CU Art Museum. “With its memorial albums, lenticular photographs, hand-colored portraits, and stereoscopic slides, the Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection is an invaluable resource because it expands our understanding of photography as a medium in which artistic, commercial and vernacular forms are inextricably intertwined,” said Barlow.

Ira Wolff, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut, acquired the collection over the course of several decades from bookstores and dealers throughout the United States and Europe. Now retired, Mr. Wolff worked as an executive at NBC in the mid 1950’s to 1960’s before embarking on a career in direct marketing. A longtime former member of the Grolier Club, the New York City bibliophile society, Mr. Wolff turned his attention to photography after meeting the renowned curator, collector, and companion to Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff, through his service on the Grolier Club’s exhibition committee. Mr. Wolff, who describes his collecting strategy as “strongly amorphous,” built his photographic history collection in broad strokes, beginning with any book containing tipped-in salt or albumen prints and then moving outward to nearly all manifestations of photographic and photomechanical practice.

The University Libraries is currently in the planning stages for the cataloging and archival processing of the collection. Future plans for the collection also include exhibitions, select digitization, and curriculum integration. Interested researchers are advised to contact the Special Collections unit of the Department of Archives and Special Collections.