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Untitled. Photo, between 1935 and 1942.

Untitled FSA/OWI Photos: Stories Waiting to be Uncovered

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Photos are stories. Stories of a moment, a day, a life. And some photo stories are actually mysteries!

Within the over 175,000 images in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection, roughly 70,000 of them came to us untitled. This means the negative was never printed as a photo and therefore a caption was never written to describe its contents. Over many years, staff have added information from similar photos to the catalog records of a majority of the untitled images, greatly increasing access. Within the pool of photos that currently remain simply Untitled, I find fascinating images.

As much as I am a person who seeks concrete answers, I also find it enjoyable to simply look at a photo, closely and carefully, and think about it. Even if there is no answer at the end of the day, I can exercise my observational skills and my imagination. I save photos I find in our collections that offer me either a moment or an hour or even longer of study. Here are a few of my recent saves, all from the remaining untitled photos in the FSA/OWI black-and-white photos.

Take some time to look first:

Untitled. Photo, between 1935 and 1942.

I love how sparing this image is, and how curious at the same time. The two ladies sitting by the road drew my attention, so I zoomed in on them in our largest digital file:

Detail of Untitled. Photo, between 1935 and 1942.

What do I see? Wooden chairs that face the street. The woman on the left, hand to her mouth, has her pocketbook and maybe a jacket draped over her chair. The lady on the right has a newspaper perched on her head to protect her from the sun, presumably. She appears to have items in her lap. They are turned to each other, engaged in conversation. What are they discussing? What brings them to this exact spot on the side of the road instead of their own homes? The photographer has shot them from above, probably from a window, so they are almost certainly unaware of being observed.

In the full photo, I noted a base and a pole at far left. In an adjacent photo, I can see this is a sign, though we can only see the back of it. There are more cars on the road in the other view. The longer I looked at both photos, the more a story formed in my mind. I think that sign may indicate this is a bus stop, and the ladies are chatting to pass the time until the bus comes. Are those chairs from their homes, or just a communal contribution? Do they meet here every day or once a week? For weeks, for years? We’ll never know, but I love how much a simple photo can stimulate ideas, and let the viewer create a world from it.

I’ll share a few other curious, intriguing, and (mostly) untitled photos. Maybe you’ll see stories to tell as well.

[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Albert Mayer, Washington, D.C., Principal Architect of Bound Brook, New Jersey, project]. Photo by Carl Mydans, 1936 Feb.
Untitled. Photo, between 1935 and 1942.
Untitled. Photo, between 1935 and 1942.


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Comments (11)

  1. I am guessing that the ladies in the picture have arrived early in the morning (see the long shadows) to claim their spots for an upcoming parade. Hence the newspaper over the head: They are going to be there for hours, not just till a bus arrives.

    • That’s a great suggestion! Thanks for taking the time to look and comment!

  2. I like that thought. Perhaps the parade has already passed (see the litter on the street). They are taking a moment to relax and catch up after the noise and excitement, and before they go home to tend to their families.

    Would be fun to have a story contest about each picture.

  3. The last photo of the “tea” party. Again the shadows reveal what I think are additional people standing to the right of the table.

  4. The last photo of the “tea” party. Again the shadows reveal what I think are additional people standing to the right of the table.

    And I’m guessing the cat in the out box explains why the paperwork is positioned outside the box.

  5. Kristi: you didn’t mention how to look at adjacent photos. That’s often the best way to find context.

    • Matthew,
      The blog post I linked to in the Learn More explains all the tactics used to connect related images, including the Browse neighboring images feature, which is a wonderful tool. Here I am simply encouraging readers to enjoy the photos as they are and tell the stories they see. Working without a net, with only your powers of observation!

  6. Great finds – and spurs to analysis and speculation! And, of course, the Outbox Kitty is a treasure. Thanks for bringing attention to the untitled photos and their potential.

  7. I do a fair amount of photo restoration for our historical society. I’m inclined to agree with Carol that the parade has long passed. I imagine that the women planned to spend the day here. They had read the newspaper prior to the parade, and the lady looking into the sun later used it to shade herself. All of the spectators have long gone. Spent debris lines what was the spectator section and the roped off stanchions have been drawn back to curbside (bottom left). It’s late afternoon, the shadows grow long.Their clothing worn earlier has been thrown off. The older of the two is wearing a “house dress” and shoes, the fashion of the time. The younger lady wearing blouse, skirt and high-heels could be her daughter.

  8. The ladies again. That is a very wide thoroughfare. Perhaps they had watched the Rose Bowl parade and everyone else scurried off to the game?

  9. Looking at the photo of the book and comic I did an online search for comic book covers and found one with a similar cover dated July 1938, from Crackjack Funnies. This would narrow the photo to between 1938 and 1942.

    Thank you for such lovely posts and a chance to play detective.

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