Those Unknown Photograph Subjects…

Quite often in my Overhills research, I find myself desperately seeking historic photographs of people and buildings. While photography was not widespread in the early decades of the 20th century, I always have this feeling that there has to be a photograph in existence of what I need.  I had that feeling while Jeff and I worked on the Overhills book and as we continue to work on the oral history project: as soon as it goes to press and is available to the public, people will come crawling out of the woodwork with photographs. These won’t be just any photographs, but incredible, never-before-seen photographs. So far, that has not happened with the Overhills book, but it always seems like a possibility.

Currently, I’m searching for photographs of James Francis Jordan, of the Kent-Jordan Company who founded the Overhills Country Club. I have seen a photograph of him, but it’s in a book and I have yet to track down the owner of the photograph. I’m working on it. If you have any idea who James Francis Jordan is and know what I’m talking about, please let me know.

Along the same lines, I often imagine the boxes of unlabeled photographs in attics and basements and archives and offices. It’s quite possible that these boxes contain the exact information you and I are seeking, yet no one will ever know because too much time has elapsed between the photograph’s date and the present. So while the photograph exists, it is not doing us any good. It can happen in families. I have photographs of family members and no one knows who they are. How sad is it to have a photograph of an unnamed subject?

With this matter, I plead: label your photographs. You never know who in your family is going to be historically significant (read: not famous, just important to history in some way), or who will benefit from the dates and names of people in the photographs. Nowadays, we take hundreds of digital photographs in a span of days. Talk about being annoying to label, especially if you’re traveling and you try to label those photographs weeks later. Sometimes the task is impossible.  

For posterity, do your best to organize photographs and family documents and pass them from generation to generation. Many historical societies receive family collections, which in turn benefit researchers near and far. Local history has previously been just that – local and reaching no further. In this digital age, we are able to share local history on the internet. It’s time consuming, but the greater the audience for the documents, the more meaningful they become. You never what someone is researching. 

The Washington State Library has begun the Washington Rural Heritage Project under a similar philosophy: to create a statewide digital repository that will enable rural and small communities to share their unique histories. Evan Robb (my cousin) is the Project Manager.  I’ll feature the project on another post in the near future. In the meantime, I applaud the Washington Rural Heritage Project.

…and I’m going to label more of my photographs.

4 thoughts on “Those Unknown Photograph Subjects…

  1. Evan Robb says:

    Thanks for the plug Kaitlin! You’re absolutely right about photos and other documents languishing in personal collections and just being lost to time. One of our collections is particularly exciting because our partnering library put a call out to their community members to bring in material, and ended up receiving one-of-a-kind images. They were pulling together photos of small one-room schoolhouses in rural southeast Washington State. Many of these no longer exist, and for a number of them, no known photo existed. In a few cases, photos of these “lost” schoolhouses came out of the woodwork as people found them in old boxes of photos etc. You can see them, georeferenced, here: http://www.washingtonruralheritage.org/columbia/index.php?page=map

  2. preservationinpink says:

    Evan, the georeferenced schoolhouse page is amazing! I love that it’s interactive and you can find out a lot of information about the schools and the exact source. It’s a great way to get that “sense of place” feeling from history and see the popularity of buildings like schoolhouses that are mostly gone. I’m so glad people are finding these images for you! Keep up the good work.

    Everyone else, check out that link. It’s awesome.

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