Admittedly, until recently, I didn’t know much about a collectors genre known as Lost Photos or Other People’s Photos. Sure, I’ve visited my fair share of antique malls, and often wondered how old photos — framed or otherwise — came to lose their way and get beyond the grasp of familiar family circles.
How does that happen, right?
But the process became all too clear when more than 1,100 Kodachrome slides belonging to my Great Aunt and Uncle were inadvertently sold in an estate sale in June 2011.
Funny thing is, no one in my family was the wiser until later that year when Jeff Phillips, a Chicago-based photographer, scooped them up in a St. Charles area mall.
Now these slides weren’t just any slides, for the images documented the widespread travels of Harry and Edna Grossmann of St. Louis taken during a 10-year window from the early-to-mid-1950s to approximately the early 1960s. Jeff knew he had landed a rare find of imagery documenting trips to Alaska, Hawaii, Europe and the Grand Canyon, among other destinations.
The photos piqued his curiosity; he wondered who the couple was, where they were from and more importantly, did their family members know the pictures had been sold?
And, of course, we did not!
But being a social media expert, Jeff established a Facebook profile entitled, “Is This Your Mother?”
What ensued next was an online search party bound and determined to help Jeff find the identify of this yet unnamed couple.
“I figured with the volume of slides on hand,” said Jeff, “I could post one a day for years. I had absolutely no concept of how long it would take to connect with family members or find someone who might recognize this otherwise nameless couple.”
Thanks to the power of this social media experiment, Jeff made a connection with Michael Ayres (my first cousin) in Naperville, Ill., inside of three weeks … at that point, his Facebook page had slightly more than 300 likes.
Imagine my surprise when Michael sent me this message: Hey Carol, check out this FB page. You’re gonna flip ’cause it’s Aunt Edna and Uncle Harry!”
Inside of one weekend, my family members jumped online in an effort to help Jeff fill in the gaps and assist with unanswered questions. From there, the online back and forth continued for several months.
Fast forward to 2012. By October of that year, Jeff had already tested the waters with a small exhibit of Harry and Edna’s photos at a gallery in Chicago. That’s when we started talking about bringing Harry and Edna home to the St. Louis metro area where they’d lived the majority of their adult lives. A sideline conversation with Laura Helling and Angela Fowle at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles was a springboard to the next big thing.
Jeff worked to curate the current exhibit — Lost and Found — which included enlargements of some 30 images. He also masterfully incorporated a slide projector reel of some 80 additional images along with an iPad photo gallery and choice commentary from the online search process.
One of my personal favorites depicts Harry and Edna standing on a glacier in Alaska. Here’s a glimpse of the Facebook commentary:
Marcel Pacatte You can’t fool me. They were standing in their yard. The glacier picture is from somewhere else. Prankster Harry cut up the yard photo and glued him and the missus onto the glacier pic. I think it was their 1958 Christmas card. #rudimentaryphotoshop
Is This Your Mother? Plausible. I love Harry’s protective grip underneath Edna’s arm, so that she can stand safely on the icy glacier.
Marcel Pacatte Am I imagining things or is this the happiest we’ve seen Edna? She strikes me as veritably giddy in this one.
Beth Kujawski I love this one.
Patricia Rice Bryant Edna in another divine ensemble! Glacier chic, indeed.
Christy Beilsmith Protective grip…or about to hurl her off the glacier? Perhaps THIS is what happened to Edna!
Dory Van Weerdenburg Nah…he’s holding her arm, preventing her from falling forward. If he wanted to push her, his hand would have been on her backside.
Wanda Cardona I think I’m in love with Harry…
All in good fun for sure! And speaking of which, the fun continues at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles until Friday, June 21. From there, who knows where Harry and Edna will travel next? For all of us involved in this project, it has been a labor of love as the exhibition presents the beauty, humor and mystery of found photographs.
Who knew my Great Uncle and Aunt would become explorers in their own right? They are firmly positioned at the intersection of photography, social media and our places in history.
Written by Carol Felzien, director of communication, city of St. Charles.