Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art

archives room

The National Museum of African Art is dedicated exclusively to the collection, study, and exhibition of African art. The museum's primary aim is to foster and sustain public understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures and arts of Africa through exhibitions, collections, research, and public programs. As part of the museum, the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives is a research and reference center devoted to collection, preservation, and access of visual materials that encourage and support the study of the arts, cultures, and history of Africa. The Archives is a unique repository for materials illuminating the history of photography and photographic practices in Africa. Its collections contain over 600,000 items, including historic collections of glass plate negatives, cartes-de-visite, lantern slides, photographic albums, stereographs, postcards, maps, and engravings. 

Eliot Elisofon, for whom the Archives was named, was an internationally known photographer and filmmaker whose enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1972 was published in magazines such as Life and National Geographic. As a filmmaker, he worked on film and television projects including the Black African Heritage Series (1972), a four-part documentary on African arts and cultures. Elisofon's association with the National Museum of African Art began as a founding trustee in 1964. Upon his death in 1973, Elisofon donated his African materials to the museum, including over 50,000 black and white negatives and photographs, 30,000 color slides, and 120,000 feet of motion picture film and sound materials. The bequest became the foundation for the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.

Since 1973, the Elisofon Archives has grown to include over 180,000 slides and color transparencies and 80,000 black and white negatives and photographs. The holdings are divided into two major categories: art photographs, which show African works of art in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art and other museums and galleries; and field photographs, which depict art and life in Africa. The field photographs, comprised of over 200 collections, contain images of African artists, leadership, masquerades, architecture, and natural landscapes, and reflect the work of both western and indigenous photographers. 

Notable materials within the Archives include the field photographs of Eliot Elisofon, black-and-white photographs taken by Constance Stuart Larrabee in South Africa between 1936 and 1983, Henry and Margaret Thompson Drewal’s field research depicting Yorùbá art and culture, Nigerian photographer Solomon Osagie Alonge’s scenes of Benin City and the Benin Royal Court, and a historical collection of over 16,000 postcards. Special collections also include late 19th- and early 20th-century photographic albums with significant anthropological and historical research value.

The Archives is open to the public by appointment only, Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., with the exception of federal holidays. All requests for permission to use images must be submitted in writing (by email, letter, or fax) and are subject to approval. Fees are charged for one-time usage and pre-payment is required on all photographic orders. For a current list of fees and services, please contact the Archives.

Records of the collections of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives are accessible online through SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System, and the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives. To search for catalogue records and electronic resources on SIRIS, click on "Search Archival, Manuscript and Photographic Collections" and conduct searches by general keywords. You can also browse images in the Image Gallery by countries, subjects, or cultural groups.

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Ave SW
Room 2140
Washington, DC 20560

Mailing Address 
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012
NMAfA, MRC 708
Washington, DC 20013-7012