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).
History of the Untitled Treasure Hunt
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Read this 2013 Picture This blog post — “Finding Unprinted FSA/OWI Photographs–It’s Easier Now!” — about earlier efforts to enhance access to untitled photographs from the FSA/OWI Collection.
- Browse untitled black-and-white photos in the FSA/OWI Collection, some of which have now been connected to titled images.
- Explore the FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives further by perusing this overview, which allows you to search the collection, and to read about its background and scope, and more.
- For insight on FSA selection of images to be printed, see: Fleischhauer, Carl. “Selecting Photographs for the FSA/OWI Print File: a Photo-Assignment Case Study: John Vachon’s Documentation of the Roanoke Farms Resettlement Project, Halifax County, North Carolina, April 1938” (25 June 2020). [pdf, 7.8 mb]. http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/Vachon_FSA-1938-RoanokeFarms.pdf
- Look through additional World War II posters available through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.