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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Getting Warmer: Clues in the Reflections

This post is a follow-up to  "Cold Cases and Archival Mysteries," in which we invited you, the readers of this blog, to help us identify a group of photographs from boxes labeled “miscellaneous” in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. To learn more about this collection, see the SIRIS record

Intern Jennifer Graham works on solving some archival mysteries
In order to solve a cold case, new evidence must surface or existing evidence must be re-examined. With the help of readers like you, this case of unidentified photographs and negatives has been getting warmer and we’re on our way to solving the mystery! To recap, this is what we know:

The photographs were developed (but not necessarily taken) by Moses Asch

The majority of the photographs were taken in New York City

Some photographs were taken around 1949 or 1950

The negatives have an aspect ratio of 1.33 (30 mm x 40 mm)

Stepping into the temporary shoes of Photograph Detective, I wanted to try to understand these photographs. Who was the photographer? What was being photographed? Where were the photographs taken? Why and when were they made? These are questions that we tend to ask to help build any knowledge that each photograph may hold. But when the answers to those questions aren’t readily available, we need to rediscover the information we have to draw connections and ultimately conclusions.

The first objective became to investigate the maker of these photographs, but how could one identify the photographer when they are always behind the lens? It became a priority to look for any semblance of an author. Any of these little breadcrumbs could configure a new lead or another clue! What we did find was a reflection of a woman with long and slender hands. Although she may not have authored all of the photographs, she is certainly responsible for taking this one. This, in the photo detective world, is a milestone!

What is amazing is that the reflection also tells us that the camera was both small and handheld. Can you help us try to identify the camera she was using? After researching the scribbles made on the development envelopes, we now know that the photographer was using 127 half-frame films, producing 3 x 4 cm images per roll. The camera also looks like it is being held horizontally, which could potentially be helpful in identifying a camera made before or during 1949 (the identified date of some of the photographs). In knowing this, maybe we can come closer to solving the mystery.

Another point worth mentioning is that although the majority of photographs have a documentary style, there are photographs where the subject(s) have been posed.  These poses suggest an interaction or relationship with the photographer, which is seemingly absent in others. While still a document of the city of New York, these images indicate a familiarity or closeness, which especially becomes the case in the photographs where an unidentified woman sits inside next to a window with a magazine or picture catalog (below). Who could she be?

Once the who(s) begins to take shape, the what(s) and why(s) become just as important to construct the purpose of the photographs.  Maybe with these new clues, we can begin to unearth more information than we ever thought possible. We’re hot on the trail, and are moving full steam ahead! Good luck detectives!

Jennifer Graham, Summer Intern
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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