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Double Take: Familiar Faces

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Many entries in the Double Take series, where we look a little closer at images, come out of the steps I take to answer reference questions in my daily work. Recently, in response to a question seeking a photo of a particular building, I was browsing about 300 photographs of Dubuque, Iowa, from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection, taken in April 1940. Research in visual materials can include simply looking through potentially related images, recognizing that captions and title information may not always describe everything shown.

As we have explained in previous Picture This posts, the FSA/OWI collection includes untitled images, which came to us without a caption. A feature in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog allows for browsing neighboring images, which can lead to photos taken at the same time or in the same location. As a last step in reviewing these photos, I used this feature to see what other images were possibly taken in Dubuque on the same trip. One of the untitled photos, seen below, caught my attention for a couple of reasons:

[Untitled photo, possibly related to: John F. Vachon, Farm Security Administration photographer] Photo by John Vachon, 1940 April.
Several details stood out immediately. First, it’s a very intimate image, taken inside a bedroom with the subject in pajamas. The FSA/OWI collection includes many photos of people inside their homes, but I could not remember a shot of an adult man dressed in pajamas instead of street clothing. Second, I was pretty sure I recognized the man in the photo!

[Untitled photo, possibly related to: John F. Vachon, Farm Security Administration photographer]. Photo, 1942.
I checked the photographer credited for the rest of the Dubuque photos and my hunch quickly gained traction. The photographer was John Vachon, exactly who I thought the photo resembled. It is not common to find photos of the photographers themselves in the FSA/OWI collection. In total, we have found a few dozen out of the over 175,000 photos. A few photos of Vachon are identified in the collection, including this one, at right.

The resemblance is clear in his physical features and hair. To me this is definitely the same man. The other details I had noticed further supported what my eyes were telling me. The photo is found in the middle of the hundreds Vachon took that spring in Dubuque. The suitcase at right confirmed this man was traveling, as Vachon was, and this is likely a hotel or boarding house. And taking the casual look in pajamas into consideration, a self-portrait makes a lot more sense. One of Vachon’s hands is just out of sight at the right, likely using a remote shutter release to take the portrait in the mirror, and the view is angled in such a way the camera itself is not visible. The coat hanging up and the one he is wearing in the photo at right indicate a penchant for tweed!

While viewing photos we have of Vachon, I was reminded by this one that a fellow librarian and blogger, Jan Grenci, also recently identified FSA/OWI staff in an untitled photo. Vachon is at far left, next to photographers Arthur Rothstein and Russell Lee. At far right, we see the director of the FSA Photo Unit, Roy E. Stryker:

Roy Stryker & FSA photographers. Photo by Beaumont Newhall, between 1937 and 1944.

She came across this previously untitled photo in a group of photos documenting the construction of the Watts Bar Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). A casual portrait, appearing alongside photos of workers on the dam, caught Grenci’s attention, as she recognized Roy E. Stryker (left) and the photographer working that day, Arthur Rothstein, dressed for safety on the construction site.

Untitled. Note: Photograph shows FSA Photo Unit Director, Roy Stryker and photographer, Arthur Rothstein visiting Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) projects in 1942. Photo, between 1935 and 1945.

These new identifications are added to the online catalog records, offering small pieces of visual insight into the life of the photographers who traveled the country working for the FSA/OWI.

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Comments (3)

  1. What a fantastic find! And I love the sartorial clues (wearing pajamas, favoring tweed). If I’m remembering correctly, wasn’t Vachon also given to some photographic experimentation — he even got his own category in the subject classification (Vachon Photos = .96928 – Thanks for pointing this one out!

    • Barbara, thanks for the comment! And yes, Vachon had an eye for interesting composition and did warrant his own category for the otherwise difficult to categorize photos he sometimes took. It’s a fun browse through that subject classification.

  2. Kudos should go to whomever cleaned that mirror in the spring of 1940. It inspired art.

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