The following is a guest post by Barbara Orbach Natanson, former Reference Section Head, Prints & Photographs Division.
Being a woman of a certain age myself, I recently began to wonder how and where older women are depicted in Prints & Photographs Division collections. Naturally, even in embarking on such an exploration, one has to acknowledge certain caveats: “Older” is a relative term in any culture and, unless original captions indicate how a person’s age was regarded, it’s hard to know whether an individual was considered older in their own time. Moreover, minus captions that give ages in years, one can only estimate on the basis of certain physical traits (wrinkles, white hair, stooped posture, to the degree these are visible, particularly in black-and-white pictures) that a person had lived many years, while recognizing that some of those characteristics might be determined by genetics and the rigors of work and living conditions.
Nevertheless, my odyssey through three collections (Popular Graphic Arts, Panoramic Photographs, and the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection) produced some interesting finds and stimulated plenty of questions about the visibility of older women in pictorial representations of various types and in their communities, in general.
Popular Graphic Arts
After looking at more than 500 online images with “woman” in the description, I wasn’t entirely surprised to conclude that young women predominate among these prints, primarily consisting of lithographs from the 19th century. Many of the prints were used at the time in advertising and then, as now, a fresh face and alluring form were expected to add to the appeal of the product. This seems to be the case even when the image content may have been designed to sell only the print itself, likely as a wall decoration. Prints that allude to romantic themes likewise idealized youth.
Exceptions where an older woman appear in the images generally fall into the category of reproductions of pre-existing works of art. This one, which was one of the few I found among the popular graphic art prints that featured an older woman, may fall into that category.
Women are not entirely absent from panoramas showing commercial streets in cities and towns in the U.S., but men far outnumber women in most of the streetscape photos, and the figures in dresses are often children or seemingly younger women with children. This makes me wonder whether women in general and older women in particular were really less apt to frequent the areas photographed or whether there was something about the photographic occasion itself, such as the time of day when the photos were taken, that made men more present. It certainly appears that men are more often facing the camera in the street views and may have been more involved in or aware of the photographic endeavor, which would not have been inconspicuous.
Where older women do appear in the panoramic photographs are in the large group portraits of organizations, perhaps suggesting the important role experienced women played in sustaining such endeavors.
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI)
The FSA/OWI photographs were the product of a government project to document the impact of the Depression and agricultural dislocation in the 1930s and, progressing into the 1940s, record defense production and home front activities at the start of World War II. Given its focus on everyday life in a wide range of communities, I was hopeful that I would encounter many a mature woman in this collection, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, from the subject index to the collection, it is clear that making it possible to browse the photographs by the gender and age group of the people depicted was of interest when the classification scheme was first developed in the 1940s. Under “Women” you find “Women, Elderly,” seemingly in contrast to “Women in the Prime of Life.” The latter characterization has always amused me; it’s interesting to note that, while a parallel category, “Men in their Prime,” exists for men, the gradation of age groupings is finer for men, including “Middle Aged,” as well as “Old.”
Photographs assigned to the “Women, Elderly” category focus on individual women.
In photos found in other subject categories, older women are often seen in the context of their involvement in the community, for instance, participating in church suppers and in educational activities. These two images were taken by Marion Post Wolcott, one of the photo unit’s relatively few women photographers.
Older women also appear as members of extended families in photographs taken by other FSA photographers.
A theme running throughout the FSA/OWI collection is the intertwining threads of continuity and change, whether for good or ill. The caption for this photograph of an older woman in Mississippi implies the connection to the South’s plantation past, as well as its present.
Sometimes, continuity and change are implied in the same photo.
The amount and kind of representation of older women in pictures from different time periods raise interesting questions. They spur reflection about the reality of mature women’s experience in different eras, how visible they were in their communities, and how they were valued in terms of the experience and continuity they offered. The exploration also prompts consideration of perennial visual literacy questions: the factors shaping pictorial representation, including the purpose for which the pictures were made and the sensibilities of those who participated in making the images.
- How about doing your own survey of the online collections I sampled to see if your findings are similar or different?
- Popular Graphic Arts: You might start with the search results when I looked for the word woman.
- Panoramic Photographs: I looked at images with the word street in the description, and then I looked at photos that included group portrait women.
- FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives: In addition to looking at the alphabetical subject index category for Women, Elderly (classification number .334), I browsed pictures that came up when selecting headings like Church suppers and picnics (classification number .9026). I also searched for pictures with descriptions that included the word woman or women with words like aged, elderly, and old, and I looked at coverage of particular communities, like Gees Bend, Alabama.
- Try some different online collections and see what patterns you detect. We’d love to hear about your finds! Some additional collections I was tempted by:
- George Grantham Bain Collection: This includes many people who were prominent in the news in the 1910s and 1920s. Search hint: I would try Mrs. as well as woman, and women, as subject headings are sparse in this collection and retrieval relies a lot on the original caption.
- National Child Labor Committee Collection: Despite the name of the organization that generated the photos, families and individual women are sometimes depicted, as well as children. I might try searching for families, women, widows – or simply browse all 5,134 images! What might affect how much older women are or are not depicted in the photos?
- Camilo Vergara photographs: For a more recent, community-oriented photographic effort, have a look at the Vergara Photograph Collection (see the collection overview). You can use the collection code vrg in combination with View the results, for example, of a search for vrg woman.
- Explore the research guide, American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections. It describes coverage of women in the Prints & Photographs Division collections. Selected collections that are strong for such coverage are listed according to the original purpose for which the images were intended.