Identifying historic photos? Think outside the social media box

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Earlier this summer, as temperatures soared above 100 degrees in El Paso, I was tucked away in a cool room inside the University of Texas El Paso Library’s Special Collection department. I was working with the Casasola Photograph Collection, which holds prints and negatives from the popular Casasola Studio that was located in Downtown El Paso, Texas. Open from the 1920s to the 1990s, this studio photographed countless El Pasoans in formal portraits and on special occasions.

My job was to assist with rehousing, numbering, and scanning negatives from the immense Casasola collection that holds an estimated 250,000 negatives. This position is part of a three-year National Park Service Save America’s Treasures grant, administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The purpose of the grant is to preserve the delicate negatives and make the collection more accessible to the public.

young girl in communion dress

The Casasola negatives show the photographer’s retouching marks, in this case, emphasized eyelashes. Image Courtesy of the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department-University of Texas at El Paso Library.

The collection is divided into nine categories; I worked with negatives dating from 1938 to 1941 from the Niños category. Many of these negatives depicted girls in white veils and dresses and boys in suits dressed for their First Holy Communion ceremony. Examining the negatives reveals the photographer’s marks and notations, including retouching marks like emphasized eyelashes on girls. The best part of the preservation process is scanning the negative to reveal each photo’s details. Despite their youth, the children look very dignified, perhaps since most are not smiling and have adopted a solemn face appropriate for the occasion. Although the negatives are similar in background setting and subject matter, each has a special detail that makes it a unique artifact from the past.

Only a small portion of the Casasola collection is identified, so most of the negatives I scanned are unnamed children. The Special Collections staff has an ongoing project to match people with more photos. Once a week since 2003, the El Paso Times publishes a photo from the Casasola collection and asks the public to contact Special Collections if they can identify it. As a result of this effort, about half of the photos published in the newspaper have been identified by the public.

man and woman

This wedding photo was printed in the El Paso Times on July 10, 2012 and was identified as Miguel and Elena Gomez Ortega. Their daughter who identified the photo also provided information about her father, Miguel, who joined the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and served in the Pacific during World War II. Image Courtesy of the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department-University of Texas at El Paso Library.

Utilizing the newspaper is a valuable approach to increasing the visibility of a collection like Casasola among people who might not encounter historic photographs in archives, museums, historic sites, or online digitized collections. This approach reaches older populations who still maintain subscriptions to print versions of the daily newspaper. These individuals might not have regular Internet access or be Internet savvy enough to search through digitized photo collections. In addition, older El Pasoans are the most likely to recognize themselves, their parents, or other family members in the Casasola photos from the 1930s and 1940s. The Casasola photos are also available on the El Paso Times website as well as their mobile app and you have the option of sharing the photo through email, Facebook or Twitter.

While you can search for photos from previous weeks through the El Paso Times website, an online archive of unidentified photos will expand the effectiveness of the newspaper identification project. Special Collections staff should consider adding an archive to their website or, even more simply, create a Flickr photostream and print the link in the newspaper. People who miss the photo published in the newspaper or have recently discovered the collection can use this archive to search through the entire collection to locate their family members. As well, this compilation makes a collection available as a research tool for teachers, researchers, and genealogists. The combined effort of utilizing print media and the internet will greatly increase public accessibility to the collection and will ensure that staff and interns aren’t the only people to see these beautiful portraits in the future.

Check out the Casasola Photo Collection on the UTEP Library’s C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collection Department website.

~ Vanessa Macias-Camacho

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