At a consignment antique shop near St. Louis, I discovered a big pile of funky-smelling Eastman Kodak boxes containing dozens of projection trays filled with Kodachrome slides. I have an abnormal fascination with OPPs (Other Peoples’ Photographs) and enjoy the hunt for junk-store portraits, but on that day, I was not expecting to find anything special.
I opened one of the boxes, removed a single slide from the tray, and held it up to the ceiling light. What I saw was astounding: a portrait of a woman in a bright pink dress, standing in front of a field of trees, perfectly centered in the frame. The next slide was almost identical, except the woman was wearing a yellow dress. Then, a blue dress. Rinse and repeat.
The next slide made me laugh out loud, right there in the store: it was the same woman again, standing on the deck of a ship, wearing a bright orange life preserver. Who was this woman? When were these photographs made? What wacky rules of composition was the photographer abiding by? Regardless, I knew that I had something special, if even only for the entertainment value of a collection of kitschy retro images. I bought all 30 boxes, which contained nearly 1,100 slides. I paid about $60. When I returned home to Chicago, I began digging in. Over the course of several weeks, combing through the photographs slide by slide, tray by tray, box by box, I looked carefully for markings or labels that might provide a clue to the subjects’ identities, but they were almost completely devoid of any information. After viewing about 500 photographs, I came across a single slide labeled “Edna,” written with a pencil on the cardboard slide mount. Some time later, I found a slide containing a man posing with group of women interlocked like a chain gang, all standing near a blue Cadillac. The inscription was “Harry, 1958.”
Harry and Edna. How perfect, right?
The boxes and trays kept on producing. There were photographs of Edna, photographs of Harry, photographs of Harry and Edna together, and beautifully arranged group portraits, almost always featuring Harry and a group of women (sans Edna, but I’m guessing that for these, she was the shooter). There were landscape and cityscape shots from faraway places such as Italy and Germany. Interestingly, the largest number of travel photographs were made in Alaska and Hawaii. In 1958, neither was officially a state yet, and must have still been quite wild places to travel to. Harry had a fascination with photographing windows from the inside of a room, revealing the outside world within it, as though he was trying to capture his experience of being there, in that room, enjoying the view, instead of just making another generic scenery shot from the outside.
It was difficult to know when these photographs were made. Some were as old as the late 1940s, and others as recent as 1961 (the slide itself was not marked but Edna was posed next to a Cypress Gardens sign with the year painted on it). For some time, I was not sure of their relationship to each other, as I could not see rings on their fingers in the earlier images. Later, I found two individual photographs, 10 years apart, of Harry and Edna posing at parties with cakes topped with candles in the shape of the numbers 25 and 35. These appeared to be anniversary celebrations, and I concluded that they were married. It was still very difficult to determine much else about them, and I had no idea where they lived or where they worked. There were many photographs of Harry and Edna holding children, but it was clear to me that none of the children were theirs.
I was beginning to feel as if I knew Harry and Edna, but of course, I could not. All I really knew was that these images are an important visual record of the lives of two still-unidentified persons during the prosperous decade of the 1950s. I wanted to find a way to bring them back.
It was a long shot, but I devised a social media experiment that might do just that.