One of the things people often want to know about photography at the Smithsonian is, “How many photographs do you have?” with the quick follow-up, “Have you counted all of them?” No one knows for certain, but statistical sampling suggests that there are over fifteen million pictures, in the form of prints, negatives, and digital files.
Back in the mid-1980s I and a partner developed a product for archiving photographs and images and indexing them via hypertext based on image archiving work I had done earlier at NASA.
Yeah yeah, I know, a product ahead of its time :).
We immediately saw The Smithsonian and other major museums and archives in DC as possible early adopters. Although we never implemented the system in DC, we did spend considerable time “behind the scenes” discussing the scope of the project.
Of the numbers that stuck in my mind, I recall that my contact deep in the basement of American History estimated then that there were 1.5 million photos and images there and 9 full time photographers on staff.
His counterpart at Air and Space estimated 6 million images and that did not include video or film of any sort.
I also recall that we had a list of at least 25 collections in DC (not all Smithsonian) of at least 100,000 images.
The largest I recall was at National Geographic, which claimed 50 million images, maps, photos and the like, at that time.
Give that this was all before digital cameras were invented (or at least affordable even for pros) and that 25 years have passed, it seems likely to me that the 15 million estimate is very very VERY low.