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Photographic portraits can group or isolate subjects, be posed in formal or casual ways, and be intimate or public. Subjects can be famous or anonymous. If we know the subject, we want a good likeness. But if a photographer captures someone whose image intrigues us or inspires us to emulate them, being familiar with the sitter doesn’t matter. We can feel sympathy for the father caressing his dying son, or joy for the father beaming at his angelic daughter, without knowing their names. We might speculate on a subject’s character, style, age, or worth.
The Library of Congress seeks out as much information as possible about the photographs it acquires, including the names of the photographers and the subject(s), as well as when and why the picture was made. It pursues photographs of those recognized for their accomplishments in sports, culture, business, politics, and many other pursuits. The Library also collects the works of photographers who are famous as portraitists. In addition, it also has sought dynamic images of less famous, even anonymous, people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and stations in life. Occasionally the Library staff is aided by other researchers or by someone who might see a picture online and exclaim, “That’s my grandfather!”