A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, but You’ve Got to Have One or Two to Start With

The following is a guest post by Taren Ouellette, Digital Library Specialist, Prints & Photographs Division.

With 175,000 black-and-white film negatives, the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection was a U.S. Government effort to capture scenes of American life during the 1930s and 1940s with such topics as the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and the beginnings of World War II. Half of the collection had accompanying context and titles provided by the FSA/OWI office, but over 70,000 images were not given captions. The Prints & Photographs Division (P&P) has been working to make those “Untitled” images more accessible since the complete film collection was first digitized in the 1990s.

You may have noticed some of these untitled images when searching through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC).

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, showing photographs with untitled records (compiled/captured 2013)

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, showing photographs with untitled records (compiled/captured 2013)

History of the Untitled Treasure Hunt

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, with “Browse neighboring items by call number” link (compiled/captured 2021)

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, with “Browse neighboring items by call number” link (compiled/captured 2021)

The untitled images are the result of the working practices of the FSA/OWI office. During the 1930s and 1940s, only the negatives selected for printing were given full captions. When the full collection of negatives was digitized, only the negatives that had been printed had preassigned captions included in the item-level catalog records as searchable and descriptive information. Over 70,000 images displayed with [Untitled] as their title.

After several years of researcher use, P&P added more searchable keywords and identifying information to a portion of the 70,000 untitled negatives in the collection. As described in a 2013 blog post, this enhanced access was made possible by the innovative search functionality in PPOC to “Browse neighboring items by call numbers.” This feature, and some keen visual detective work by P&P staff and interns, gave 18,000 images new searchable information in their records. These previously untitled images now have such information as related negatives and links, notes, titles, dates, locations, and photographer names.

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, showing photographs of Mariemont, Ohio with both original and newly found, related information (compiled/captured 2021)

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog display, showing photographs of Mariemont, Ohio with both original and newly found, related information (compiled/captured 2021)

Over the past 18 months of telework during the pandemic, a group of P&P and Digitization Services Section (DSS) staff returned to this project to enhance access and identify most of the remaining untitled images.

Diving into the Collection

The team started with the 34,826 untitled images in two of the largest FSA and OWI series and dived right in.

Helen McNamara, a library technician in DSS, describes her process of contributing to untitled records as starting with a call number search and easily browsing by neighboring items, while at other times having to draw upon her own knowledge, such as “recognizing a building in D.C. and then using Google Map’s street view to try and identify the precise intersection where a photograph was shot, to help create these new titles for them.” One of her examples shows the entirely new perspective of a scene that photographer John Vachon took in July of 1940.

Loading household goods into cars and trailer. Two families getting ready to move on in search of work picking fruit. Berrien County, Michigan. Photograph by John Vachon, 1940 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c17740

Loading household goods into cars and trailer. Two families getting ready to move on in search of work picking fruit. Berrien County, Michigan. Photograph by John Vachon, 1940 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c17740

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Loading household goods into cars and trailer. Two families getting ready to move on in search of work picking fruit. Berrien County, Michigan. Photograph by John Vachon, 1940 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c17741

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Loading household goods into cars and trailer. Two families getting ready to move on in search of work picking fruit. Berrien County, Michigan. Photograph by John Vachon, 1940 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c17741

Michelle An, a processing technician in P&P, honed in on details, such as noticing similarities in dress and appearances between an untitled image and images captured by FSA photographer Russell Lee at a Kansas pie eating contest. Making this connection now allows us all to see even more of the festivities!

Search results for “Pie eating contest” series. Untitled photo, possibly related to: End of the pie eating contest. Winner had hand raised. 4-H Club fair, Cimarron, Kansas. Photograph by Russell Lee, 1939 August. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26997

Search results for “Pie eating contest” series. Untitled photo, possibly related to: End of the pie eating contest. Winner had hand raised. 4-H Club fair, Cimarron, Kansas. Photograph by Russell Lee, 1939 August. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a26997 

In our explorations, we often stumbled across stunning images like the one that Pete Richey, a P&P digital library specialist found. You can see that Jack Delano, along with other photographers in the project, were not simply concerned with documenting life but also interested in capturing the beauty and atmosphere of a scene like this.

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Chicago, Illinois. In the roundhouse at a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad yard. Photograph by Jack Delano, 1942 December. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d23739

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Chicago, Illinois. In the roundhouse at a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad yard. Photograph by Jack Delano, 1942 December. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d23739

Tori Scheppele, a P&P processing technician, summed up her work on this fascinating (and fun) project as “each match was like solving a little detective mission, and it has been rewarding to see how many images we were able to more fully describe!”

Donna Collins, P&P’s photographic preservation specialist, commented that “Another exciting aspect of the work is the additional level of visual detail made possible by the second generation, higher resolution scans of the original FSA-OWI negatives.” These scans (with TIFF file sizes averaging from 20 to over 140mb!) made detective work into records such as this one possible. She was able to match the image to related records and also noted information found on the statue–a feat that would be next to impossible without these higher quality images.

Church. Saint Martinville, Louisiana. Photograph by Russell Lee, 1938 October. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b36976

Church. Saint Martinville, Louisiana. Photograph by Russell Lee, 1938 October. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b36976

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Church. Saint Martinville, Louisiana. Photograph by Russell Lee, 1938 October. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b36979. Red arrow added by P&P staff notes the writing on the statue used for identifying and editing record.

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Church. Saint Martinville, Louisiana. Photograph by Russell Lee, 1938 October. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b36979. Red arrow added by P&P staff notes the writing on the statue used for identifying and editing record.

Other photos required a little more detective work to find related information, such as this fascinating image that Rachel Frederick, a DSS library technician, found of two women working on a transparent nose section of a B-17 bomber. A very similar scene shows up in a World War II poster showing a woman working in a plane factory.

Untitled. Between 1935 and 1945. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d43268

Untitled. Photo, between 1935 and 1945. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d43268

 

The more women at work the sooner we win! Women are needed also as […] See your local U.S. Employment Service. Poster based on a photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12895 (View the original FSA/OWI color photo this poster is based on.)

After months of comparing, searching, and editing, more than 30,000 records were updated to include newly identified context and descriptive information. Whenever possible, in addition to providing a related image title, the team added related record links, keywords, and notes to previously untitled records to enhance their discoverability. This project gave us the chance to take a closer look at the wide range of documentation the FSA/OWI office completed during its 9 years (1935-1944) of operation. We hope that you will enjoy exploring the collection and relish some new finds as well!

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7 Comments

  1. Charles Piotrowski
    September 30, 2021 at 9:39 am

    I believe the image of the working women (which is awesome!) is a bomber cockpit (nose) of a B-17.

    • Melissa Lindberg
      September 30, 2021 at 10:25 am

      Thanks for bringing this to our attention! You are certainly correct, and we have adjusted the post to indicate the correct plane.

  2. Fowler
    September 30, 2021 at 9:53 am

    Fascinating work you do and I enjoy reading about it always. Thank you so much for sharing this history.

  3. Mohamed Wishahi
    September 30, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    This is a great project to show the people’s daily life in 1930-1940, the idea could be adapted and implemented to photographic collections in different lands.

  4. Athena
    September 30, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    The real detective work is, did the woman holding a camera on moving day take a picture of Vachon!?! And where is it? I love this story and these well cared for collections. Thank you!

  5. Jane Van Nimmen
    October 1, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    Many thanks for another fascinating blog posting. As a Louisianian, I was struck by the statue of the French priest, A. M. Jan. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s SIRIS Art Inventories, Father Jan was born in Pontivy, Brittany, in 1802 and died in 1887 in St. Martinville, LA, where he had served as a priest since 1851. The bronze portrait was completed in 1888, the year after he died. I wish the catalog record could mention the sculptor, August Verrebout (1836-1889), who was born in Bruges, Belgium, and who opened an active sculpture studio on the rue Bonaparte in Paris. With works in Notre Dame and other churches in France, Verrebout exported sculpture to Canada and Latin America, as well as this memorial for a small town on Bayou Teche, the heartland of the Acadians in Louisiana. Russell Lee’s photo at LoC could interest those studying the commerce in nineteenth-century French art in North and South America. I’m grateful to your team in P&P for identifying Lee’s rare images of Verrebout’s statue, still standing in front of the church of St. Martin de Tours in St. Martinville.

  6. Mari
    October 3, 2021 at 7:34 am

    The Farm Security Administration photographs are a national treasure! Thank you for valuing and taking such good care of these precious images of American life.

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