Crowdsourced Archival Research on New Slides: Preparing for War

Crowdsourced Archival Research? Huh?

Hopefully, when you saw the title of this post, you were intensely curious about what I might have meant by “crowdsourced archival research”. Why am I hopeful about this? Because you’re part of the crowd! Or at least I hope you will be. “Poilu, Balloons & Gouraud”, the latest major accession of the Jordan/Ference Collection, contains over 400 slides, most lacking captions. They’re divisible into 5 major series. Figuring out this collection is going to be a task. I’m currently pursuing two Master’s degrees, curating Great War in 3D, and living my life. So assuming you have more than a passing interest in the First World War, and you’re willing to put on your detective hat, you’ve just been deputized.

Your tour guide for today’s introductory post

An image of a French soldier holding a cat. If it looks as confused as you are at hearing about "crowdsourced archival research", you'll soon understand. The cat is, sadly, long gone.
RedDot001 – No Official Caption. The only image in this post not selected at random. Note Major’s stripes.

So what’s so special about this collection? Quite a few things, really. But, fully believing it’s better to show than tell (especially considering that you will likely want to see what you’re being asked to help with), I figure it’s best to just show a few images from each series and explain what I know – and what I don’t.

I’m looking for a few (dozen, hopefully) amateur archivists to help work this out. If there’s interest, and this experiment works, I’ll make a new post every week or two with additional images. I’ll add a spreadsheet with analysis of what we’ve looked at so far. I’ll add in relevant maps and supporting documents. If nobody chimes in, I’ll just digitize everything and toss it up on Great War in 3D like usual. Writing blog posts takes time. I’m happy to spend it if you’re willing to try to help figure this out. If not, I’m perfectly happy to continue posting the occasional VistaScreen series and my annual Remembrance Day posts.

Five series. One or more photographers? Arrangement?

While all of the slides in this collection are of a similar character – 6×13 glass, midtone-centric, taped – it’s entirely possible that they were not all shot by the same photographer. It seems highly likely that the two largest series (each comprised of over 150 images) came from the same camera. I have reason to believe that one additional series can be attached to these. I suspect that a fourth series cannot. Finally, there is a series comprised of all the misfits that don’t fit in with the four primary series.

The slides I’m about to show you are randomly selected from their series, with the exception of the first Red Dot slide (seen above). The archival concept of “original order” goes out the window when you receive pieces of the collection intermittently over a years-long period, with random bits of different series in each parcel. We have no idea on provenance, but these have probably been rearranged several times in the last century to make slideshows. So we need to put these in order. Our first task is to figure out exactly what we’re looking at. To this end, I’m going to show slides from each series. I’m going to tell you what I’ve figured out so far. Then, I’m going to invite your comments – preferably in the comments section, but through my email if you wish to remain anonymous. Hence: crowdsourced archival research!

Everybody who chooses to participate will be given appropriate credit in the final collection description. The person(s) who contribute the most will receive a special, limited edition Jordan/Ference Collection T-Shirt. And that’s about it! Let’s meet the relevant series!

Series 1: “Red Dot” series

By far the largest series in this collection, the Red Dot series is so-named because each slide features a red dot on the tape on the emulsion side. Most also have a caption strip beneath the dot. Unfortunately, most of the caption strips are blank. This means that the vast majority of these images must be understood from what is pictured, as well as from context derived from other stereoviews.

The opening image in this post is from the Red Dot series. It was specifically selected for this post because… how cool is that? And I was sort of compelled to feature this slide by the images that were randomly chosen for this post. The following images are just the top 5 slides in the pile, in no particular order, with made-up titles:

Evidently, there was a light leak in the right-hand lens of the camera. We’re going to be seeing that again. Note that there are images of everyday poilu as well as officers, candid shots of drilling as well as staged portraits, and that all of the images are pretty amazing. Also note the lack of true whites or blacks in the images. Apparently, the stereographer was of the same mind as myself when printing; midtones are supreme. And just look at some of the great composition up close:

Detail shot to aid in crowdsourcing archival research
Yes, there will be occasional detail shots as well. The resolution of these images is superb!

Any ideas on the make or model of these gas masks? When they were introduced?

Series 2: “Green Dot” series

This is easily the second-largest series in the “Poilu, Balloons & Gouraud” collection. It is very similar to the Red Dot series except for the color of the dots on the tape – are you catching on to my clever naming scheme yet? However, the caption strips were universally filled in. I use the past tense there because so many of them have been rendered illegible by humidity. It’s a miracle that only a small fraction of this collection overall shows signs of water damage. What captions remain are hard to decipher, especially with so many proper names. For images with captions, I’m going to add descriptive captions in the gallery and then add scans of the captions next. If your French is decent and you can read ancient handwriting, please have a go at it! The first four slides in the pile (with the first one moved to the front intentionally):

Yeah, you’re seeing that correctly – an actual shot of Russian soldiers on the Western Front! Exciting, right? That dates it to 1916-1917, unless it’s Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front, which is even more exciting (but highly unlikely). Maybe some crowdsourced archival research could solve this puzzle?

The “star” of the collection

Of particular note here is General Henri Gouraud. We’re going to be seeing a lot of him in this collection; an early suspicion of mine was that the photographer was either personally known to Gouraud or attached to his 4th Army. We know that this stereo was taken after August 1915, when Gouraud returned to duty minus one arm. He had been wounded leading the French forces at Gallipoli, and Poincaré had personally bestowed the médaille militaire at his hospital bedside. Of course, he was a horrible butcher in the colonies before and after the Great War, but he was by all accounts an effective commander. In any case, here is a blow-up:

Detail of Gouraud from GreenDot001, meant to aid in crowdsourcing archival research.
Evil sods like this really do help win wars sometimes.

Of course, we can’t choose the subjects that fall into our archives. Would I rather have a collection centered around Sir John Monash? Sure. But archival professionals (and those doing crowdsourced archival research) don’t get to choose what they’re cataloguing. And besides, bastards have their place in history. And so do these guys at the 1914 post, of which we know little:

A close up to aid in crowdsourcing archival research
The lensman had a great eye for compositions featuring many people, a rarity among Great War stereographers.

I want to make a few more notes about the Green Dot series. Firstly, a spoiler. The dated views primarily date to 1914, 1915, and 1917. I don’t know why 1916 isn’t as prevalent. Tonally and in terms of printing, enough tape has fallen off to suggest that these are consistent with the Red Dot series. Both series use depth of field, often poorly (focused to infinity with the subjects blurred). This is the leading reason for my suggestion that they have a shared stereographer (or shared camera). But I’d like to back this up with something solid.

Series 3: “Orange Dot” series

Can you guess why this series bears this name? Yes, the dot above the caption strips is orange on each slide. Not a single one bears a caption. For reasons I shall go into in a closing section, I believe this series is consistent with the Red Dot series. If my logic about the Red Dot and Green Dot series is sound, then all three “Dot Series” are from a single photographer – which would make it the second-largest single authorship collection in the archive. Here are the first three images (again, randomly selected, which unfortunately means near duplication in the first two):

So we’ve got two portraits well behind the lines – possibly post-war, more likely during leave – and a shot of a field mass that was enlarged from a small-format negative. Look at the right side of the left-hand image – dead giveaway that. Plus, while the first two images are proper stereoviews, the third is either barely-stereo or not stereoscopic. So we’re clearly dealing with a mixed bag here. Next up is…

Series 4: “White Circle” series

This series contains about 20 slides with white circles in the upper-left hand corner. While they are taped in a manner similar to the various dot series, they are labeled differently, with each bearing a number no higher than the mid-20s. I haven’t gotten around to a count yet to see if there is a complete series here. In any case, I suspect that the photographer might have traded copies of his own stereoviews for copies of another stereographer’s. I have no reason to suspect this besides intuition. Prove me wrong. But first, let’s take a look at a pair of examples:

Clearly the same location. But what location? And what of the 17s on those caps, eh? One thing is certain, there aren’t a lot of slides in this series, and while I’m tempted to bust them all out now and figure it out, that’s no fun. What happened to our newfound endeavor in crowdsourced archival research? Have a go, see what you make of it. Finally…

Series 5: Mixed Bag

This series encompasses “everything else”. Some slides with captions in places other than the center. Many untaped slides (most I presume to have been taped at one point, due to glue residue). Many taped slides with captions in the standard placement for the “dot” series but missing their dots. This is usually the first step in untaping a slide, before you realize what an utter pain in the arse it is. I’m only going to show one example here for now. In the future, depending on what you all want to see more of, I might do an entire group of these. Up to you; after all, inherent in the concept of “crowdsourced archival research” is that you’re an active participant! Anyhow, here’s a sample:

For a blog post on crowdsourcing archival research in Great War stereography
MixedBag001 – Officers at the ready.

Note that this could be from any of the dot series (or none of them). But the presumption is that it once was, and that some interloper untaped it (the bastard!) – we need to figure out contextually where Series 5 belongs. From what little you’ve seen so far, any idea as to where this one might go?

Time for Detective Work

If I’ve struck a chord with your inquisitive streak, if you’re interested in joining in some crowdsourced archival research, then consider ways in which we might be able to form bonds between elements of each series. Consider how we might prove – or disprove – sole authorship between the Red Dot, Green Dot, and Orange Dot series. Prove me wrong about the White Circle series if you can. But use whatever specialist knowledge you have – or AI – or Google – and try to dig up at least one thing that hasn’t been said so far. Put it in the comments, or email me at – if this picks up traction, then great! I’ll keep the posts coming. If not, no worries – I’ll process these alone, possibly listening to some George Thorogood, possibly weeping into my tea.

I jest.

But just in scanning and (minimally) editing these, I’ve found something nifty which suggests a link between the Orange Dot series and Red Dot series. Using the obvious color codes where obvious, and blue for White Circle slides (because white doesn’t show up well), here are the regimental insignia found in the sixteen slides presented here:

28 July Regimental Insignia Rundown:

We’ve got an Orange Dot and a Red Dot slide each with 24 appearing on the collar! The shapes are different – and I’ll get back to you on that when a pair of severely overpriced guides to French uniforms from the Great War arrive from overseas in 25-60 days. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Or drop me an email. Or send me a message on here (note: I don’t check my messages on here super-frequently). But do let me know if this is something you’d like to be a part of – I realize that this will become a whole lot easier once we have more images digitized, galleries for each series that we can look through, and all that.

But first I want to make sure that crowdsourcing archival research isn’t just a pipe dream on my end. I’m willing to put in the work if you’re interested in seeing more and exploring this collection in a collaborative manner.

That’s enough out of me. Your turn!

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