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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
- Revisit previous entries in the Double Take series, where we take a closer look at photos and other types of images in our collections.
- Enjoy additional Picture This posts featuring the FSA/OWI Collection, including a few about the work to identify more and more of the Untitled photos, most recently discussed here: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, but You’ve Got to Have One or Two to Start With.
- View the rest of the photos from the groups of FSA/OWI photos mentioned in the blog post:
- John Vachon’s April 1940 documentation of Dubuque, Iowa (Can you spot the gas station I believe must have been visible from his hotel room window, based on the recurring photos?)
- Arthur Rothstein’s June 1942 photographic record of the completion of the construction of the Watts Bar Dam in Tennessee