I’m constantly amazed and amused by photographs from the Harris & Ewing Collection and the range in the information that came with them, from the sublimely detailed–full of names and dates–to the barer-than-bare bones: no caption at all. Here’s an example that intrigues me, particularly with the model wagon(?) beside her on the desk.
Though some may find it confounding, if you like pursuing mysteries, the absence of information can be tantalizing. It invites all the satisfactions of detective work: deduction and deep dives into information sources documenting the era in which the photos were produced–a rather expansive 1905-1945.
Reference librarian Jon Eaker has been making his way systematically through the more than 41,000 digitized Harris & Ewing negatives, looking for those where the information might be enhanced. In the process, he has shared some great photos and has, simultaneously, demonstrated how he is able to piece together the story behind an unidentified photo. He recently shared this photo on the electronic version of our staff sharing wall.
When one of our colleagues asked if he knew what the group was watching, Jon laid out what he had figured out: “From the neighboring photos, I think it is people trying to view the Sept. 17th, 1919 parade that welcomed Pershing and the 1st Division back to Washington after WWI. In some of the neighboring photos you can see the temporary triumphal arch that was built just before the parade. The parade appears to be military in nature and no one is wearing coats. So I’m 95% certain it is that parade.” He also speculated that someone better versed in Washington, D.C., buildings might be able to figure out the precise location. For that we turned to our resident expert at deducing locations, reference specialist Kristi Finefield. It didn’t take her long to come up with an answer: “They are standing on 14th Street NW, looking south toward the Mall and looking across Pennsylvania Ave. The arch Jon is referring to would have been a block to the right of the photo on Pennsylvania Ave.”
If you’re looking for an opportunity to exercise your own photo detecting skills, Jon has obliged by picking out some minimally-identified photos that we are featuring in our Flickr album, “Mystery Photos–What’s the Story?” (which also has lingering mysteries from previous years that remain to be resolved!).
There, you’ll see, for instance, this one that may hold some scientific or technology clues:
Here we know the location and even the year, but what are the horse and rider doing there?
And this one shows a pretty good portrait likeness, but we’d sure like to know more about Sara, which is all we could make out from the identification that came with the negative:
If you think you know more about any of the photos above, please feel free to comment!
- View the array of photos in the Flickr “Mystery Photos–What’s the Story?” album. (We label them “Identified!” as they get pinned down–comments below the photos often tell how people figured out what they show.) People with free Flickr accounts can offer comments there. Or tell us more via Ask a Librarian — we like getting information as well as providing it!
- Take in an overview of the Harris & Ewing Collection, and view the digitized photos in all their variably captioned glory.
- We had a lot of fun five years ago exploring gadgets in the Harris & Ewing Collection – see what we learned in “What’s This Gadget: Solving Mystery Photos.”
- Have a look at previous posts in our “Double Take” series, where you can observe mystery solving in action.