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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Delve into the FSA/OWI Subject Index, through the classification number listing, or the alphabetical listing of topics. The introduction gives additional background and explanation of how Paul Vanderbilt’s organizing scheme was translated to an online environment.
- Review our blog post about an earlier FSA/OWI access improvement, which made many of the untitled negatives more searchable and featured ice cream in the bargain!
- Read more about the FSA/OWI Collection and its components: prints, negatives, color transparencies and written records.
- Are we obsessed with food? Probably. Sample our blog series, “Feast Your Eyes.” (We never get enough of savoring those pies!)
Dandy explanation, Barbara! Thank you. It is hard not to think that archivists like Vanderbilt (and the FSA-OWI staff that did the initial captioning and filing) would have leaped at the chance to use digital tools when they worked in that earlier day. I have thought the same about the tens of thousands of Margaret Mead – Gregory Bateson photos from Bali and New Guinea in the LC Manuscript Division. In that case, of course, Mead and Bateson wore hats labeled “researcher” as they organized, analyzed, and presented selected photos in their 1941 book _Balinese Character_. (Archiving for them meant keeping your research “laboratory” data in good order.)
These workers are among our predecessors in organizing visual information that, at its best, is artistic and a source for insights into culture. But the tools of the 1930s and 1940s more or less pushed them to park things in one or two places or under one or two headings. Vanderbilt made a neat contribution, as you report, with the idea of microfilming the more-or-less ethnographic lots before creating the subject-classified file: the pictures have been available “both ways” for more than a half century.
Unfortunately, microfilm is so user-unfriendly that those films were not well known, compared to the classified file. Digitization PLUS creative use of the inherited-from-the-1940s titles, classes, and lot numbers make “slicing” the FSA-OWI collection much easier for today’s online users, just as you report!