Finding Unprinted FSA/OWI Photographs–It’s Easier Now!

I started out this week to reflect on the joys of summer with one of our “Caught Our Eyes” posts.  It also turned out to be a fine opportunity to celebrate the results of a recent project to improve access to the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection of photographs from the Depression and early World War II home front.

A colleague tipped me off to a picture of boys enjoying ice in the summer heat, but as so often happens, after entering the search words “boys” and “ice” in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, I got sidetracked in looking over my search results.

I got such a kick out of this photo–one of the digitized negatives from the FSA/OWI Collection.

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Farm boys eating ice-cream cones. Washington, Indiana. Photograph by John Vachon, 1941 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a32920

It may have been a photographic “blooper”–the child’s eyes inconveniently closed just as the photographer snapped the picture. But doesn’t it epitomize the sensation of near ecstasy that comes from licking cold ice cream on a hot day?

Tipped off by the “possibly related to” phrase in the title for the photo, I took added pleasure in realizing that finding this photo was a gift resulting from our project to enhance FSA/OWI photo descriptions.  A couple of months ago, I would not have tripped across this photo by typing “boys” and “ice,” because all the title said was “Untitled.”  Through the special project, we’ve added information to the description to associate it with these two other photographs of the boys (quite a study in ice cream pleasure!).

Three photographs by John Vachon showing boys eating ice cream

Untitled Photographs in the FSA/OWI Collection

FSA/OWI Collection caption card drawer, showing the caption card for the photo of boys eating ice cream (negative number LC-USF33-16109-M2).

FSA/OWI Collection caption card drawer

My ice cream ecstasy photo is one of the 70,000 “untitled” negatives in the FSA/OWI Collection.  Why “untitled”? The FSA and OWI did not print all the negatives the photographers shot during the 1930s and 1940s because printing took a lot of resources.  Instead, the FSA/OWI staff printed selected photos  and typed up caption cards only for those images.

When the collection came to the Library of Congress, however, it included all the negatives, both printed and unprinted. And when we first digitized the negatives back in the early 1990s, we digitized them all. For the images that had been printed, we were able to include the descriptive information found on the caption cards. But we had no information for the unprinted negatives, and referred to them as “Untitled.”

Fortunately, the developers of our online catalog long ago created a handy feature to help people browse the negatives in sequence (“Browse neighboring items by call number”). That way, you can see all the pictures and draw some conclusions from the visual similarity of the untitled images to ones that have titles.

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display for John Vachon titled photograph of boys eating ice cream, and "Browse neighboring items by call number" link.

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display for John Vachon titled photograph of boys eating ice cream, and “Browse neighboring items by call number” link

This wonderful feature has enabled people to find close variants of well-loved photographs (don’t get too excited, though; we haven’t found any unprinted variants for the most famous series of Migrant Mother photos).

Seeing neighboring items has also helped relatives of those who appear in the pictures  find more family members in variant images.  And it has enabled researchers to learn about the photographers’ working methods and the editorial selections that staff members at the FSA and OWI made in the course of their work.

The special “browse” feature brought the 70,000 unprinted negatives back to life!  But to find untitled photographs by a particular photographer or showing a particular subject like “ice cream,” you still had to start from a titled one and hope the neighboring images showed similar themes.

Making Descriptive Information Explicit and Searchable

Recently, dedicated volunteers and interns browsed the untitled photographs, starting with the 35mm negatives, and made connections to titled photographs that appeared to be closely related.  Then our talented staff worked out a mechanism for transferring searchable information (titles, photographers, place names, and dates) for the titled photographs into descriptions for the associated untitled photographs, while still retaining the fact that the images had originally been untitled.

More than 18,000 previously untitled images now have searchable information.  So when I typed in “boys” and “ice” – up came a “new” photo that caught my eye.

The associations among titled and untitled images may not always be exact.  But the addition of photographer names and keywords makes many more images ripe for discovery and opens up new paths for research.  Making the images easier to find will help us refine descriptions going forward.

There remain many untitled photographs for which good associations could not be made easily (a challenge for another day!).

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, showing photographs with recently added "possibly related to" titles, as well as some still untitled images.

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, showing photographs with recently added “possibly related to” titles, as well as some still untitled images

But in the meantime, the keen eyes and technical know-how of people in several Library of Congress units–Information Technology Services, Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Prints & Photographs Division–has helped everyone to find and appreciate more of the FSA/OWI photographers’ documentation of American life in the 1930s and 1940s. As summer wanes, the cooling power of ice cream may hold less appeal, but the joy of discovery will continue.

P.S. Here’s a guide to the new data added to the description of an untitled photo. The yellow highlighting indicates information “borrowed” from a visually similar negative that had a caption.

Description for the "Farm boys eating ice-cream cones" untitled photograph in Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, with highlighting showing added information "borrowed" from a visually similar negative that had a caption.

Description for the “Farm boys eating ice-cream cones” untitled photograph in Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, with highlighting showing added information “borrowed” from a visually similar negative that had a caption

Learn more:

One Comment

  1. Paul Kossey
    July 16, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    FSA/OWI supplied many of the photographs to newspapers, magazines, etc., and it would be very useful to be able to determine when/where specific photographs were published. For example, Jack Delano’s “Negro Church in the Mill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1941). When and where was it published?

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