Double Take: Detecting a Daredevil

The latest entry in the Double Take series owes its existence to serendipity. Accidental discovery is alive and well in our online collections, and it’s easy to find one thing when looking for another. While working on a reference question about a building on 9th Street N.W. in Washington, D.C. and browsing through older photos of that street in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, one dramatic photo made me do a double take. What on Earth is going on at the top of this building?

REYNOLDS, J., PERFORMING ACROBATIC AND BALANCING ACTS ON HIGH CORNICE ABOVE 9TH STREET, N.W. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.09577

REYNOLDS, J., PERFORMING ACROBATIC AND BALANCING ACTS ON HIGH CORNICE ABOVE 9TH STREET, N.W. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.09577

I zoomed in on the high resolution scan to test what the caption and my eyes were telling me, and I was introduced to (the legs of!) daredevil J. Reynolds. Using the information in the caption, I searched elsewhere in the Harris & Ewing Collection of early 20th century images of Washington, D.C. and found several photos of Reynolds’ antics, both from the perspective of the passerby and of the rooftop spectator.

REYNOLDS, J., PERFORMING ACROBATIC AND BALANCING ACTS ON HIGH CORNICE ABOVE 9TH STREET, N.W. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.09580

REYNOLDS, J., PERFORMING ACROBATIC AND BALANCING ACTS ON HIGH CORNICE ABOVE 9TH STREET, N.W. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.09580

"Position is everything in life", anyway its a lot in the life of John Reynolds better known as the "human fly". He is shown doing his stuff on the flag pole of the Times-Herald Bldg. Wash[ington] D.C. Photo by National Photo Company, 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b45866

“Position is everything in life”, anyway its a lot in the life of John Reynolds better known as the “human fly”. He is shown doing his stuff on the flag pole of the Times-Herald Bldg. Wash[ington] D.C. Photo by National Photo Company, 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b45866

My curiosity was officially piqued, so I searched for more about the mysterious J. Reynolds in another collection focused on the same time period in Washington, D.C.: the National Photo Company Collection (NPCC). I had the advantage of knowing that the descriptions for these negatives rely on the captions that came with them, which are used as the title. As with many of our very large digitized collections, we make the images and basic descriptions available as soon as they are ready, and return to them later for more systematic subject indexing. Because the original captions on historic photographs were informal and often recorded hastily, searching them requires patience and persistence, as names can be abbreviated, misspelled, or truncated. (The source of the captions is often indicated in the Notes area of the photo’s record.)

I searched first for J. Reynolds, and failing that, tried just Reynolds. The crazy photo at right as well as a new piece of information was my reward: Reynolds’ first name was John. The caption also provided a location for this stunt and the flagpole in use at the top of the Times-Herald Building in Washington, D.C., seen below:

Times Herald Bldg., [Washington, D.C.] Photo by National Photo Company, between 1910 and 1926. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.32270

Times Herald Bldg., [Washington, D.C.] Photo by National Photo Company, between 1910 and 1926. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.32270

Before starting a new search, I browsed the rest of my results and found that the same man was referred to as John, Jno. (an abbreviation for John), and Jammie Reynolds, all within the captions provided by the National Photo Company. These bits of information, original to the time the photos were created, even if they are typos or mistakes, can be useful for guiding further searches.

Searches elsewhere in our collections turned up more examples of Reynolds’ daring acts, as I took full advantage of both the names I found in the National Photo Company Collection’s original captions as well as additional variations on the name John. The photos below are some of the products of those searches, and a closer look at the captions reveals how they were uncovered.

Johnnie Reynolds, human and daredevil extraordinary, picked one of Washington's coldest days to do his hair-raising stunts. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1921 and 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.32140

Johnnie Reynolds, human and daredevil extraordinary, picked one of Washington’s coldest days to do his hair-raising stunts. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1921 and 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.32140

Jammie Reynolds. Photo by National Photo Company, between 1912 and 1930. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.27920

Jammie Reynolds. Photo by National Photo Company, between 1912 and 1930. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.27920

This unusual double exposure photo shows Reynolds in his “human fly” mode, climbing a building in Washington, D.C. with no apparent safety equipment!

Jammie Reynolds. Photo by National Photo Company, between 1912 and 1930. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.27918

Jammie Reynolds. Photo by National Photo Company, between 1912 and 1930. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.27918

Jno. Reynolds, 1/26/24. Photo by National Photo Company, 1924 January 26. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.10461

Jno. Reynolds, 1/26/24. Photo by National Photo Company, 1924 January 26. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.10461

Learn More:

Unlocking the Power of Primary Sources

If you are interested in learning more about visual literacy and historical thinking and about resources such as historical newspapers and photographs, you are in luck! Join us online for a free two-day event: “The Library of Congress and Teachers: Unlocking the Power of Primary Sources.” The virtual conference will take place October 27-28, 2015 […]

New Video Series on “Reading” Pictures: Every Photo is a Story

When I look at my family photographs, the stories behind them usually come flooding back to me. I recall the occasion–and often people and events I associate with the occasion, even if they aren’t shown in the pictures. But lacking those personal associations, photographs–especially historical photographs–can seem like vast mysteries–or closed storybooks. Now a wonderful […]

The FSA/OWI Collection: New Videos Provide a Visual Introduction

How can one ever come to understand a collection of 170,000 pictures? If you read my post a few weeks ago about finding unprinted Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) photographs, you probably quickly realized that the collection is complex, consisting of many interrelated parts. I hope you also got a sense of the […]

March on Washington, 1963: Many New Photographs Digitized

The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a landmark Civil Rights demonstration held on August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. We have photographs in many collections that document this famous event. But the U.S. News & World Report Collection […]