“What’s the Story?”: Solving Mystery Photos

We asked “What’s the Story?” – and the answers came rolling in! Two months ago, we added twenty photographic puzzlers from the Harris & Ewing collection to the Library’s Flickr account with the (we hoped) tantalizing headline of “Mystery Photos – What’s the Story?” The corresponding glass negatives for these photos came to us without captions, so we asked Flickr watchers to put on their collective detective caps and look for clues. Identifications came in quickly for some, while others proved more challenging, and a few have only recently been identified, through persistent research. More than half of the unidentified photographs are now at least partially identified, making them more valuable to researchers.

Take this photo of a young woman posing, framed by a rather large ring of some kind:

[Woman posing with the Tucson Ring meteorite at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.]  Photo by Harris & Ewing, circa 1938 or 1939. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2009014229/

[Woman posing with the Tucson Ring meteorite at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.] Photo by Harris & Ewing, circa 1938 or 1939. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2009014229/

A Flickr commenter quickly remembered photographing this artifact in 2002 and a second commenter identified it as the Tucson Ring meteorite from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Further evidence from newspapers and other textual sources confirmed the story. See all the Flickr comments for this photograph.

If you don’t instantly recognize the subject of a photograph, another good starting point is to look closely at an image for anything written – signs, names, labels.  Do you spot the hint that led to the identification of this photograph? (Don’t peek at the caption!)

 [The Budd Railcar Lafayette, a lightweight, stainless steel train which ran on rubber tires and was exported to France]. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1932. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.36829

[The Budd Railcar Lafayette, a lightweight, stainless steel train which ran on rubber tires and was exported to France]. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1932. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.36829

Partially obscured behind the open window is the word Lafayette. According to the comments in Flickr for this photo, we are seeing the rubber-tired Lafayette rail car, a streamlined design by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, Pa. for export to France.

This photo of a lone unidentified man standing on the steps of the Capitol holding a cane seemed like one of the toughest puzzles, but diligent searching by a Flickr commenter revealed the fascinating story of William Andrew Johnson, a former slave of former President Andrew Johnson.

[William Andrew Johnson, former slave to former President Andrew Johnson, who was presented with a silver handled cane by President Roosevelt on a visit to Washington in 1937. Photo taken on steps of U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.] Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.22206

[William Andrew Johnson, former slave to former President Andrew Johnson, who was presented with a silver handled cane by President Roosevelt on a visit to Washington in 1937. Photo taken on steps of U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.] Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.22206

Mr. Johnson was invited to Washington, D.C. in February 1937, where he met President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, and was presented with the gift he holds in the photo: a silver-headed cane engraved with both his and President Roosevelt’s names. Newspaper accounts and blog entries linked in the comments of the Flickr entry share the rest of the story.

These are just three examples of identified images. Be sure to explore all of the stories unfolding in these photographs! (See the links at the bottom of the post.) Some of the identified images still lack a few details, and other photos in the set continue to stump commenters. I leave you with both a general challenge to try and figure out the remaining photos in the group but also a specific one.

After the set was posted, I recognized an individual in one of the mystery photos. In the photo below, the man at the far right is Cong. William D. Upshaw (D – Ga.), who served in Congress from 1919 to 1926. Other photographs of Upshaw in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog caught my eye because of his distinctive crutches and hand gesture. With this information in hand, and a willingness to dig for answers, I’m confident one of you can shed more light on this image.

NO CAPTION. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1923 and 1929. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.34050

NO CAPTION. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1923 and 1929. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.34050

Feel free to comment here or, if you have a Flickr account, on the entry for this photo if you can answer the question: “What’s the Story?”

Learn More:

4 Comments

  1. Jim Fry
    April 2, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    Stubborn; persistent; relentless; dogged

    Like a dog with a bone.

    William D. Upshaw

  2. Davis J. Fairfax
    October 5, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Throw them a bone.

  3. G. Norman Crump Sr
    October 12, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    We have a bone to pick with you

  4. G. Norman Crump Sr
    October 12, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    We’ve a bone to pick with you

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