Arthur Scott brought Senate to life through the lens of his camera

Where can you see senators dodging tacklers in football, staring down the pitcher in a baseball game, practicing karate moves and tying a string around a frog in an attempt to get it to jump? On the Capitol’s third floor, where a collection of legendary Senate photographer Arthur E. Scott’s pictures hang.

Scott documented the Senate from 1934 to 1976, first as a news photographer for International News Photos and World Wide Photos, then from 1955 on in an official capacity, after Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) hired him as photographer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. This job and his decades of experience meant he built relationships that allowed him to be on hand to capture timeless moments between senators.

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The candid scenes now on display in the exhibit, titled “Capturing a New Image: Photographs From the Arthur E. Scott Collection,” include staff members chasing Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) in a game of football on the Capitol lawn around 1970. In a more rural setting is a picture of a real “Washington Senators” baseball team in 1958: Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) at bat, John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) catching and Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) umpiring.

Outside the realm of sports — but firmly within the realm of the unusual — is a 1965 photograph of Sens. George Murphy (R-Calif.) and Thruston Morton (R-Ky.) tying a string around a frog on the Capitol steps in an attempted reenactment of the Mark Twain short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Heather Moore, the Senate’s photo historian, contrasted these photographs with the multitude of paintings and sculptures that adorn most the of the Capitol’s walls.

“The art in the Capitol is, of course, beautiful and moving, but there’s something about a photograph that captures a moment and captures an image,” she said. “Except for the busts of the more recent vice presidents, the art is from 200 years ago. Because [this exhibit is] more recent, people can look at it and go, ‘I remember Dirksen,’ or, ‘I remember that.’ ”

The exhibit has been on display for approximately 15 years on the walls of the Senate side of the third-floor hallway that runs the length of the Capitol.

When Scott died in 1976, his family donated 30,000 of his negatives and prints to the Senate Historical Office, where they became part of the permanent collection.

“The former photo historian realized that the Scott collection had some great images and thought we ought to display them,” said Scott Strong, an administrator for the Office of the Senate Curator.

When the exhibition first went on display, visitors would often be lined up along the hallway, waiting to get into the Senate gallery.

“I think the idea was to give them something to look at,” Moore said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occasioned tighter security, visitors no longer line up in the hallway, but still pass through it on their way to the gallery.

When asked if visitors pay attention to the photographs while walking past, Gwen Privott, a security aide stationed by the exhibit, replied, “Oh, yes.

“The one they like is the football one, especially,” said Privott, referring to the photo of Percy and his staff.

While many of the images, like that of the football game, are light and fun, some are more serious.

“Some of the images that stand out are the more profound images, like the one of JFK walking through the rotunda on his way to the inauguration and another one of his casket in the same rotunda,” Moore said. Those two photographs hang side by side.

Moore and her team are able to keep the photographs looking fresh because they are not the original prints, which means they can be replaced with another set of prints from the original negatives when need be. The team put up new prints a few years ago when the old ones started turning a faint orange. 

Scott himself went to work in the field of preserving and using photos as a historical resource when the Senate appointed him as its first photo historian in 1975. However, Scott was unable to serve in the post for long; he died in 1976. After his death, senators took to the floor to commemorate him because, as Moore put it, “He was part of the Senate, as well as the members.”