Sampling Slices of the FSA/OWI Collection

Pie eating contest, Cimarron, Kansas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26997

Pie eating contest, Cimarron, Kansas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26997

Anyone who has ever dipped into the amazing Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photograph collection has probably experienced the same sensations that a pie eating contestant must face: mouth-watering temptation combined with a sinking sense that one will soon be overwhelmed.

There are many ways to explore the 175,000 black-and-white photographs in the collection. You can search for words in the titles. You can look at groups of pictures made for the same photo assignment. You can also browse the FSA/OWI’s original subject index. Each type of access allows one to slice the photographic pie a little differently. So, with outdoor eating on my mind, let’s examine the slices a bit more closely.

The Keyword Slice: Titles are Key

Staff at the Resettlement Administration and its successor agency, the Farm Security Administration, captioned the photographs that they printed. The staff recorded information about what the photograph shows, and sometimes they also included words conveying the context in which the photo was taken. This captioning pattern continued when the unit shifted to the Office of War Information. The captions became the titles for the photographs in online descriptions.

When I search the collection for the word “picnic,” for instance, the results show an array of images relating to outdoor eating events and venues: men preparing a “fried supper,” plates laden with food, families stretched out on blankets, parishioners praying at a Sunday school event.

Cooking a fried supper as a benefit picnic supper ...Bardstown (vicinity), Ky. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a42916

Cooking a fried supper as a benefit picnic supper …Bardstown (vicinity), Ky. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a42916

Sunday school picnic ... Saint Mary's County, Maryland. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c34927

Sunday school picnic … Saint Mary’s County, Maryland. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c34927

Picnic on the Fourth of July, Vale, Oregon. Photo by Russell Lee, 1941. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a30267

Picnic on the Fourth of July, Vale, Oregon. Photo by Russell Lee, 1941. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a30267

Prayer, or grace, at Sunday school picnic in abandoned mining town of Jere, West Virginia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1938. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a39051

Prayer, or grace, at Sunday school picnic in abandoned mining town of Jere, West Virginia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1938. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a39051

RA/FSA/OWI staff members did not always caption similar content consistently, but the words in the captions can be an important hook to discover more pictures of interest.

The Story Slice: LOTs Can Lead to Lots More Photos–and Insights

Sunday school picnic, Penderlea Homesteads, North Carolina. Photo by Ben Shahn, 1937. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a17327

Sunday school picnic, Penderlea Homesteads, North Carolina. Photo by Ben Shahn, 1937. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a17327

One of the photos that turns up in the “picnic” search results shows a young man surveying the offerings at a Sunday school picnic with very evident anticipation.

I know, however, that FSA/OWI photographers seldom took just one isolated photograph. They were working on assignments to cover a place or a set of conditions or developments in an area. To see all the coverage relating to that picnic at Penderlea Homesteads in North Carolina, I should look at the whole group of related photographs. I should look at the “LOT.” What’s that?

When OWI staff member Paul Vanderbilt transferred to the Library of Congress along with the photo collection in the mid-1940s, he foresaw that people would be interested in the stories that can unfold when one views all the pictures made for one photo assignment. Looking at the entire group of images helps uncover the story the pictures were meant to tell, but also provides clues to the story behind the story–a sense of the photographers’ working methods and assumptions. Vanderbilt arranged to gather and microfilm the photos in groups, usually related by the photographer, date and subject matter.  Each group received a one-up “LOT” number.

Catalog card describing LOT 1483. The group descriptions have been converted to online records and can be searched in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (searching the Groups of Images category focuses the search on LOT records).

Catalog card describing LOT 1483. The group descriptions have been converted to online records and can be searched in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (searching the Groups of Images category focuses the search on LOT records).

Looking at the description of one of the photographs of the picnic, I see that it is part of LOT 1483. Searching for that LOT number will let me see other photographic prints in that group, as well as the description of the group as a whole.

The group description indicates that the photos represent the work of three photographers (Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, and Ben Shahn) who captured various angles of a Resettlement Administration project, “America’s first farm-city.” Not only does this information place that communal picnic in a larger context, but it can lead to intriguing questions about the purpose for the photo assignment and the directions it took.

The Subject Slice: The Subject Index Brings Pictures Together by What They Show

While LOTs help you see photographs connected to each other by photographer, place, and time, the virtue of the FSA/OWI subject index is that it allows you to see how the same subject was handled by different FSA/OWI photographers in different places and circumstances.

Paul Vanderbilt developed the subject index in the 1940s as a follow-on activity to the LOT microfilming project. Once the photographic prints were reproduced on microfilm in the LOT arrangement, staff took the same prints and reorganized them into a browsing file based on a subject “decimal classification” scheme. That’s how researchers view the prints in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room to this day.

FSA-OWI Reading Room file drawer containing photographic prints classed in category .9026 "Church Suppers and Picnics

FSA-OWI Reading Room file drawer containing photographic prints classed in category .9026 “Church Suppers and Picnics” and related categories.

Section of the FSA/OWI Subject Index that includes the classification numbers for Social Activities, including Church Suppers and Picnics.

Section of the FSA/OWI Subject Index that includes the classification numbers for Social Activities, including Church Suppers and Picnics.

In forming the browsing file, staff assigned each photographic print to a subject classification number category, enabling viewers to see the pictures near visually related categories. For instance, church suppers and picnics (.9026), are preceded by photographs of other “organized gatherings,” including conventions (.9022 ) and the category is followed by photographs of competitions and contests (.9029).

The categories are generally very concrete, focusing on what the photo shows. The categories do not have listings for more conceptual subjects such as “Holidays,” which could be expressed through a variety of actions and objects, for instance.

Browsing the index alphabetically suggests additional categories in which outdoor eating may come into play.

Alphabetical section of the FSA Subject Index, where you can look up keywords and find the corresponding classification number.

Alphabetical section of the FSA/OWI Subject Index, where you can look up keywords and find the corresponding classification number.

Picnics outside of a church context are found through a separate classification number (.9069), and sampling pictures placed in the the “Cooking and Eating Outdoors” category (.4528 ) reminds us that eating in the open air was sometimes anything but festive. In an era when many people took to the road in search of better living conditions, it could be a it was a grim (and likely grimy) necessity.

San Benito County, California. Japanese-American girls prepare picnic lunch for members of the Japanese-American Citizens League... Photo by Russell Lee, 1942.http://hdl.loc.gov

San Benito County, California. Japanese-American girls prepare picnic lunch for members of the Japanese-American Citizens League… Photo by Russell Lee, 1942. (Photographic print found is class number .9069 – Picnics). http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c24636

Making lunch along the roadside, near Henrietta [i.e., Henryetta,] Oklahoma. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939. (Photographic print found in class number.4528 - Cooking and Eating Outdoors). http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26714.

Making lunch along the roadside, near Henrietta [i.e., Henryetta,] Oklahoma. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939. (Photographic print found in class number.4528 – Cooking and Eating Outdoors). http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26714.

Preparing the FSA/OWI Access Pie

If you’ve read this far, you probably recognize that the FSA/OWI Collection is a complex, interrelated set of sub-collections. It consists of the negatives we systematically digitized and make available through the catalog and also a smaller pool of corresponding photographic prints presented in two arrangements: microfilmed LOTs and a reading room browsing file.

The back of the mount for the photo of the young man at a church picnic, Penderlea Homesteads, North Carolina, shown above. In the center are the letter "E" (representing the southern geographic region) and the class number (.9026) where the photo is filed. In the upper left corner is the LOT number (1483).

The back of the mount for the photo of the young man at a church picnic, Penderlea Homesteads, North Carolina, shown above. In the center are the letter “E” (representing the southern geographic region) and the class number (.9026) where the photo is filed. In the upper left corner is the LOT number (1483).

For the negatives, we keyed the caption cards prepared by the FSA and OWI to provide descriptive information for each photo. But matching that information to the arrangement schemes for the prints was an additional task. In general, the caption card for a negative does not list the LOT number where the corresponding print had been grouped for microfilming. The card does not include the classification number under which the print was ultimately filed, either. (For a glimpse of what the caption cards look like, see this illustration from a previous blog post about the FSA/OWI negatives.)

Volunteers and staff have worked for many years to look at the back of every print in order to capture the LOT and subject classification information and to add those pieces of information to the online descriptions of the negatives. At this point, the LOT and subject classification numbers for the majority of prints have been recorded in the descriptions of the negatives, but the work of adding the LOT and classification numbers to the online records is ongoing.

Son of white migrant eating lunch of blackberry pie along the highway east of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26524

Son of white migrant eating lunch of blackberry pie along the highway east of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26524

Finding FSA/OWI photos of outdoor eating whets my appetite to sample the collection from new angles because the collection offers so many ways to become acquainted with life in the 1930s and 1940. And feasting my eyes on the photographs renews my gratitude not only to the agencies and photographers who produced this vast collection, but also for the hard work many people have contributed over the course of decades in order to make it possible to explore–and savor–it.

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