Library staff digs in to solve photo mysteries

  • Friday, December 13, 2019 2:13pm
  • Life

Let’s say you find a box of a few hundred old photos in folders called “Unidentified Men,” “Whidbey Babies and Children” and “Unidentified Infants.”

You probably wonder: Who are the three men sitting in what looks like a prop of a Ford Model T? Who is that boy and is he really standing on the deck of a ship? Another photo only says “Arnold,” but is Arnold the man or is Arnold the dog?

Can anyone identify these people?

The Island County Historical Society and Museum hopes so.

Museum staff put up a Facebook post a few weeks ago to get help in identifying the photos from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Coupeville Library manager Leslie Franzen saw the post and thought she could help.

“We love history in Coupeville,” she said. “That got me thinking. We could partner with Island County Historical Society and Museum in a much bigger way, along the lines of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ for a lobby display.”

With buy-in from Rick Castellano, the museum’s executive director, and help from museum archivist Cassie Rittierodt, Franzen asked library associate Gabriel Chrisman, public services assistant Jillian Gile and page Jana McAnally to work together to copy the photos and create the display.

Gile carefully curated the black-and-white and sepia-toned photos for the library.

“I was choosing with two criteria in mind,” Gile said. “One, visibility of faces so we’d have a chance at identifying them, and two, compelling subjects like the sailor boy or the Model T prop, and of course, any photos with books or dogs got scanned immediately.”

McAnally helped gather any identifying information on the back of the originals.

Chrisman put his knowledge and enthusiasm for historical clothing to use to narrow the likely years in which each photo was taken.

“Besides the clothing, the hairstyles, studio props, photo print technology, typography of the studio name and paper all provide clues about when the photo was taken and printed,” he said.

Chrisman figures the date range of the photos is roughly from the 1860s to the 1940s. Many of the photos were taken in studios in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. A few photos were taken in Seattle studios, and some were taken by a traveling photographer when Washington was still a territory — sometime before Nov. 11, 1889.

“They were probably old family photos donated by families who moved to Whidbey Island later on,” Chrisman said.

“When I see old photos like these, I always imagine the context in which the photo was taken,” he added. “To me, they are a window into the world of the past, and I try to see beyond the edges of the frame and learn more. Every clue provides a possible angle that improves our understanding.”

Gile said she became thoughtful looking through the old photos.

“My main thought as I was scanning was how clothes have changed, but people stay the same,” she said. “Even though a lot of the subjects have that grim ‘don’t smile or you’ll ruin the photo’ thousand-yard stare, you could see hints about these people based on their clothes, how they posed and who with, and even the studio they chose.”

One library customer thought she recognized someone in one of the old photos and provided a name. Franzen did some research but couldn’t confirm the customer’s hunch. Still, as a longtime Whidbey Island history buff, the library manager believes someone has to know something about at least one of the photos.

“Our goal is at least one or more photos are identified and also, that our customers learn about the resources available through the Island County Historical Society and Museum,” Franzen said.

The historic but mysterious photos will be on display through December in the Coupeville Library lobby.

“I really appreciated the enthusiasm of Jill and Jana just running with the display and Gabriel’s added expertise with this historical time period has been a huge bonus,” Franzen said of her staff. “It’s already generating interest.”

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