CHICAGO — Large, bright photographs currently fill Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, printed from Kodachrome slides that date to the 1950s and ’60s. The photographs were curated by artist Jeff Phillips but feature subjects unrelated to him — he stumbled upon the slides in 2011 at a second-hand store in St. Louis. Lost and Found: The Search for Harry and Edna features a selection from the 30 boxes of slides Phillips discovered then: over 1,000 images of party scenes, faraway vacations, family photographs. Two subjects appear as the common thread, an older, well-dressed couple rarely photographed together, but individually posed in many of the shots.
The photographs offer glimpses into the couple’s life — intimate portrayals of moments both glamorous and familial. Often the pictures mix the two, strangers arrayed around, within, behind punch bowls, tree limbs, and rose bushes. Within the exhibition, Phillips arranged the photographs by categorized groupings that coincide best with his knowledge of the entire collection of discovered slides. Family portraits congregate in one area, pictures of parties and of travel in others.
After originally unearthing the mystery couple’s visual trove, Phillips decided to produce a project that might lead to the discovery of their identities. He created a Facebook page titled “Is This Your Mother?” in the hopes of attracting the attention of someone related to the subjects. Finding out who they were became an obsession for Phillips, as well as a group of digital sleuths that quickly formed around the page. “Sometimes I would talk to them late at night, and sometimes throughout the day,” Phillips told Hyperallergic. “The mystery was definitely a distraction for me.” He decided to post a slide each day to the page, imagining the hunt would take years. His investigators, however, were persistent. Seemingly hidden clues within the images sparked further investigation for connecting links, including a license plate and an insignia on a ship. A commenter posted at one point, “I’m enjoying this more than most CSI episodes.”
Although Phillips had enough slides to continue posting for three years, the mystery was solved in just under three weeks — the same amount of time it took Phillips to originally sift through the boxes. Thanks to a lead from that ship insignia, the adventurous couple was identified as Harry and Edna Grossman from Missouri, married in 1923 and living until the mid-’80s. The discovery of their identities did not halt conversation on the Facebook page, though; commenters became obsessed with linking the lives of Harry and Edna to their own, trying to relate scenery in their photographs to places they themselves had once been. “A lot of the comments were people thinking they knew exactly where the photographs were taken,” said Phillips. “Viewers thought they recognized scenery from a childhood vacation, or somewhere they once lived.” A picture of Edna posed next to a “Glass Bottom Boat Ticket” sign and several palm trees was claimed as Silver Springs, Florida, by one commenter and the Wisconsin Dells by another.
The comments also became more creative. Some were mini, thoughtful works of speculative fiction, such as one offered on a photograph of Harry standing on what looks like a boat deck and staring off into the distance: “Harry was remembering his father, working on the fishing boat. He wondered if his father ever got to enjoy travel, or was it just the drudgery of his job. Harry wished he could smell his father’s tobacco-laced jacket one more time.” Others were a space for confession: on a picture of Edna smiling with a little girl in an Easter Sunday dress, a woman wrote, “I have no children and I have often wondered if anyone will ever care that I was here on planet earth. I can relate to Edna.” Phillips decided to include these revealing observations in his physical exhibition at Intuit, placing blown-up versions of the original comments below each corresponding photograph.
The comments transform the gallery into a kind of simulation of the project’s Facebook wall. Yet their most interesting aspect is not their inclusion but their quality. The comments presented are blown-up, just like the prints of the Harry and Edna slides, but are seen at a far lower resolution than their 60-year-old counterparts, the pixels acting as an aging grain. They seem to almost be older than the pictures themselves, creating a disconnect and appealing false confusion. The comments, like the photographs, are displayed unedited, humanizing the endeavors of these collective strangers by keeping their misspellings and errors intact.
To further Harry and Edna’s travels from slide, to print, to digital, to gallery, a large cardboard cutout of Edna appears near the center of the exhibition. Visitors are encouraged to photograph themselves with her, as she wears her oversize orange life vest, sending Edna on a journey once again through the digital feed.
Lost and Found: The Search for Harry and Edna continues at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (756 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago) through August 30.