It can be a dangerous moment for a photograph when no one can remember the identity of the people depicted in it or the place it was taken. When the context is lost, its value and significance become eroded, with a real possibility that one day it might be thrown away.
Fortunately, these atmospheric photographs showing individuals and families harvesting vegetables have been preserved, even though they have become disconnected from their history. Details of names, location, and a precise date for the photographs are now lost, but they remain a luminous record of a community and a glimpse into their way of life that existed in America approximately one hundred years ago, that might otherwise be forgotten.
Thought to date between 1915 – 1923, the photographs are the work of an un-named photographer from the Harris & Ewing photographic studio, whose archive is now held in the Library of Congress. Founded in 1905 by George W Harris and Martha Ewing and based in Washington DC, the company supplied newspapers with portraits of well-known people to illustrate their stories – but sometimes ventured out of the confines of the studio to document events of interest.
The collective title devised by library staff for these photographs is ‘Farm, harvesting vegetables’, and it’s unclear if the harvesters are collecting vegetables as workers employed on a farm, or for their own use. It’s interesting to see that, unlike today, the baskets, boxes and cloth sacks they are using are all made out of natural materials rather than plastic.
The harvesters in the Harris & Ewing photographs appear reticent in front of the camera, perhaps unused to, and uncomfortable with, the attention. A girl with a large bow in her hair helps with the tomato harvest by placing the large, glossy fruits carefully into a basket, but cannot find the courage to look directly at the photographer, while her mother looks rather guarded at the intrusion into their quiet activity.
Others seem happier to co-operate – two men, both wearing ties, pose with a large basket piled high with squash and a young man empties a basket of beans into a wooden box attached to his bicycle.
These dignified people look as though their origins were once in Europe – but as they live their lives in a new country, adopting its clothes, and gathering its crops of sweetcorn, squash and beans, they have been transformed into Americans.
The Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress here
Harris & Ewing Photographic Studio Wikipedia entry here