Wayne State University Photograph Collection - Photo Identification Tips and Tricks

State Hall, classroom, Detroit, Michigan

This article was written by Audrey Swartz, a recipient of the Ronald Raven award and a student in Wayne State University's SLIS program, during the spring of 2016.

As Wayne State celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2018, there is an effort to increase access to photographs located in the University Archives. With the help of a student intern and the Audio Visual archivists at the Reuther, we have been able to begin this process. Wayne State University’s photography collection, housed in the AV Department at the Reuther Library, ranges from roughly 1945 to 2003. These photographs cover everything from sporting events (did you know WSU once had a rowing team?) to campus ceremonies, life and construction. This collection comes from the hard work of several photographers employed by the University over the years.

The files are organized using a scheme originally employed by University Media, the department that created the collection. There is a hierarchical structure of topics and subtopics, such as University Activities -> Sports -> Football->[Year]. Thankfully there are not a lot of undated images, but these small mysteries do require a bit of detective work.

For example, we can examine a few images of what appears to be a groundbreaking ceremony on campus. These images are various crowd shots that give us plenty of information to sleuth our way to a likely subject and time period.

Photo One: Stage Shot
The first big clue here is the building mock up on the stage to the left of the speaker. Upon closer examination, this is a rendering of State Hall, built between 1946 and 1948 and dedicated in 1949. However, there is no information to tell us if this is the groundbreaking ceremony or dedication. Identifying the people in the image is a helpful next step. David D. Henry, president of WSU from 1945-1952, is pictured first on the right of the man at the microphone. While Henry was at the university for the building’s groundbreaking ceremony, the gentleman at the microphone was not. After asking several archivists, we determined it was not the governor at the time but may have been another politician, like the mayor. With some more sleuthing and image searching we are fairly certain the speaker is Mayor Eugene Van Antwerp, in office 1948-1950. Because Mayor Antwerp served only during a short time period, we can be fairly certain that this photograph depicts the dedication ceremony for State Hall on November 11th, 1949.Governor G. Mennen Williams, 1949–1961, was also reported as being at the dedication for State Hall but he does not appear to be in this image.

Photo Two: Ground Breaking
For the second photo we did similar investigation, but the image is easier to identify as a groundbreaking ceremony. WSU President David D. Henry is pictured shoveling dirt, while Governor Harry Kelly, 1943-1947, second from the left, is shown looking on. Governor Harry shoveled the first scoop of dirt for what was to become State Hall on November 12th, 1946.

Photo Three: Crowd Shot
We already know that this image is likely a crowd shot of the groundbreaking for State Hall. This assumption is based on these photographs’ close physical proximity in the files.Without the knowledge we gained in identifying the previous images, we could determine the time period by looking at clues like the clothing and the van in the back ground of this picture, as well as distinctive elements like the presence of the digger.
With clothing, your best bet is to look at the styles worn by younger women. Look for fashion indicators of the time, as most fashions shifted quickly, especially in the 20th century. Here, we mostly have men dressed in suits, long trench coats, and hats. These fashions are iconic of the 1940’s.
Because car models change often, they can also be a good hint for dating photographic images. If you know a lot about cars you can narrow it down pretty quickly but there is considerable information about auto body styles available online. This image also includes the “WSJ: The Goodwill Station” radio truck in the background. The presence of the digger also suggests that this is the ground breaking for State Hall, and because these three were all together we can assume they are for the same building or event.

In the end, archivists and student assistants were able to examine the context of the files themselves as well as the content of the images to determine that these photographs depict the construction of State Hall. However, there are more mysteries to solve in this exciting collection.

Additional Resources/Sources:
Wayne State University Building Files, State Hall, Reuther Reading Room
Wayne State University Presidents: http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/7467
State Hall Architect: http://historicdetroit.org/architect/suren-pilafian/
State Hall History: http://www.michiganmodern.org/buildings/wayne-state-university-state-hal...
WJR Radio: http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/wjr-760-am
Detroit Mayors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mayors_of_Detroit
Michigan Governors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Governors_of_Michigan