Olive Pierce photographs, 1960-2014

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Pierce, Olive
Olive Pierce (1925-2016) was a documentary photographer based in Massachusetts and Maine. The collection comprises several hundred black-and-white photographic prints taken by Pierce over her long career. The earliest images (1960s) feature landscapes and individuals in Maine, a subject Pierce returned to throughout her life. Other subjects include: political protests in Cambridge, Massachusetts and life in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Cambridge during the 1970s; high school students in Cambridge (1980s); the lives of Iraqi children in war zones in 1999 and 2003, and protests in the U.S. against that war. Also included are print publications featuring Pierce's photographs; publicity for exhibits and lectures; Pierce's 1987 guide to teaching photography; a video on DVD and audio lecture about her work; some correspondence; unpublished book mock-ups and a memoir/diary; a self-published illustrated partial memoir (2014); approximately 2557 film negatives; and about 40 slides featuring images of her early life and family. Acquired by the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
26.5 Linear Feet (13 boxes; 1 oversize folder)
Material in English
Collection ID:


Scope and content:

The Olive Pierce Photographs span the years 1960-2014, with a few copies of family images dating from the 1920s-1940s. The core of the collection is several hundred black-and-white photographic prints documenting coastal Maine and Massachusetts communities and landscapes from 1960-1993; high school student life and life in a housing project in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Cambridge, 1970s-1980s; children in Iraqi war zones in 1999 and 2003 and protests in the U.S. against that war; and various images of her family, chiefly shot in Maine. A recent addition of 2557 original black-and-white negatives and roughly 40 slides comprises images from her major projects throughout her career, as well as images of her early life and family.

The collection also includes print and manuscript materials covering various aspects of Olive Pierce's personal life and career. These include publicity for exhibits and projects, articles about her work and anti-war activism, and a draft of her 1987 guide to teaching photography. Other items include student papers written in reaction to an exhibit; some correspondence to her children and to politicians and local papers; a self-published memoir in two parts (2014) covering her earliest personal life and her sojourn in Poland during World War II, which set her on the road to becoming a documentary photographer; a book mock-up on Iraqi children's lives during the Iraq War, 1999, and a book mock-up with photos taken in Waltham, Massachusetts in 19966, both unpublished; "From Boston to Baghdad," a spiral-bound memoir/diary with copies of photos, narrative, and maps; and several sets of postcards featuring her images of Iraqi children.

Biographical / historical:

Olive Pierce was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1925. Since her father had a secure job as a banker, her family's lifestyle was not much changed by the Depression. However, she was profoundly affected by driving through the Dustbowl in the early thirties and seeing families who had lost everything moving west in trucks. She was educated at Vassar College, graduating in an accelerated wartime program in 1945. In 1948 she went to Poland as a secretary to a post-World War II medical mission. She returned with snapshots of Auschwitz and Warsaw in ruins and with the desire to become a photographer.

Pierce had as her mentors and teachers photographers Berenice Abbott and Paul Caponigro. In 1976 she received a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute which turned her toward documentary work. In 1986 she published No Easy Roses: A Look at the Lives of City Teenagers, based on her experience as a teacher of photography at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Ten years later, she published Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community.

The 1990 Gulf War shocked Pierce into political awareness about American foreign policy in the Middle East. To oppose the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, she went illegally to Baghdad and Basrah in 1999 under the auspices of Voices in the Wilderness to photograph children. In 2004, after fifty years of working as a photographer, she turned her attention to an audio documentary about the death of a Maine lobster fisherman, and was reportedly working on a novel with a related theme. She died in May 2016.

Pierce's photographs have been shown in Massachusetts, Maine, and Chicago, Illinois. She is represented in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts; the Portland Museum of Art; and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine.

Acquisition information:
The Olive Pierce photographs were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library as a gift from 2006-2010 and 2021.
Processing information:

Processed and described by Karen Glynn, Paula Jeannet, and Katy Terrell, December 2008-February 2009

Addition processed and described by Meghan Lyon, June 2009.

Addition (2021-0043) added by Paula Jeannet, June 2021.

Accessions represented in this collection guide: 2006-0036, 2006-0112, 2008-0052, 2008-0093, 2008-0313, 2009-0152, 2010-0061, and 2021-0043.


Organized into three series: Photographs, Manuscripts and Printed Materials, and Audiovisual Materials.

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Access note. Collection contains fragile audiovisual/photographic formats that may need to be reformatted before use. Contact Research Services for access.

Access note. Collection contains electronic records that require special equipment for access. Contact Research Services with questions.

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Preferred citation:

[Identification of item], Olive Pierce photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University