The Story Behind the Photo

N.53.17.520 From the Albert Barden Photograph Collection, North Carolina State Archives; Raleigh, NC.

A group of men and women pose with yo-yos on the steps of City Hall in Raleigh, NC around 1930. Among them? Pedro Flores, the Filipino immigrant responsible for the revival of the yo-yo. He’s second from the left, closest to the camera.

Many people associate the yo-yo with the 1940s and 50s, but it’s been around much longer. In fact, the oldest-known reference dates to a painted Greek vase in 500 B.C. The image—a boy with his arm extended, his hand gripping a string with a dangling round object near his feet. This visage is about as anachronistic as, say, Bart Simpson donning a tunic.

But back to Flores: Although he never claimed to be the inventor of the yo-yo, he did own the patent for a modernized version. In 1928, he began manufacturing and marketing the toys. Months later, factories were up and running, churning out hundreds of thousands of yo-yos every day. Competitions happened all over the country, many featuring Flores himself.

In late 1929, Donald Duncan bought the Flores Corporation. So, only a month after the 1929 stock market crash, Flores found himself flush with money. This new wealth enabled him to concentrate on what he loved to do—promoting the yo-yo and attending contests for it. This photograph was probably taken as he passed through Raleigh on one of his yo-yo competition tours. The faces in the group stare forward, alight with the novelty and frivolity of this little toy during a heavy time of unrest and worry.

In closing, here’s a bit of yo-yo press published in The Raleigh News & Observer‘s “Views and Observations” section in October 1929.

“I ain’t exactly intolerant,” declared Tom Robertson of Chatham County, “and I take considerable pride in the fact that I’ve learned to pass a grown man wearing short pants without even turning my head, much less insulting him, but this here Yo-Yo business is just a little too much for me. I’m gettin’ afraid to come to Raleigh any more for fear my pent-up passions will bust loose and cause me to kick the daylights out of the next so-called citizen I see spinnin’ one of them little tops. I’m a lifelong democrat and up till now I never doubted my democracy but darned if I believe that a 21-year-old person who plays with one of them things in public has got any business being allowed to vote. And besides, I can’t get the hang of the dang things, anyhow.”

Ian F. G. Dunn

Processing Archivist

State Archives of North Carolina

Where Was That Taken?: Using Google to Geolocate Photographs

While photographs are not our main medium at The Center for American War Letters Archives, we do receive tons, mostly from the First and Second World Wars. At times these photos have labelsthat brilliantly aid researchers in understanding the images and the experiences of the soldiers depicted. Often, however, the photographs exist in sleeves or with the letters they were sent with, and have no label written on the back, and no real context included. We can, at times, geolocate these photographs using the correspondence or service history of the soldier in question, but censorship and vagueness in their writing or other documents can make this very difficult. That is not to mention a lack of knowledge of every individual town or village in France, for example, let alone the changes of these places over time. That is where the fun part begins and an educational opportunity opens up for students and researchers using a unique method. 

We discovered that Google Earth’s 3D function allowed us to geolocate photographs—identifying not only the city or town shown,, but the exact vantage point of the photographer. Using correspondence, or if lucky, using labels, we can determine a general location where a soldier might have been, and then use the image to pinpoint landmarks, buildings, rivers, mountains, etc. Using Google Earth, we can zoom in and out, reposition the camera angle, and determine precise landmarks.

Courtesy of the Center for American War Letters Archives (2019-060-w-r Unknown sailor First World War photo album).

One example shows the town of Bordeaux, France. The photograph, taken during the First World War by an unknown sailor, is part of a larger photo album of hundreds of landscapes, cityscapes, and people. The sailor attempted to order the photographs in chronological bunches, but not in any complete, linear fashion, as evidenced by repeating locations and events at different spaces in the album. This photo contains some labeling, but I was curious as I was processing the collection about how the photographer captured the picture from that height. What was he doing there? 

Copyright Google, Imagery 2020 and TerraMetrics, Map data 2020.

Using Google Earth’s 3D feature to search the city of Bordeaux,  I was able to find certain landmarks, such as the spire in the middle of the frame. Once I located this spire, it was a matter of getting it to match the photo and the surrounding buildings. What I found was that the photo had much to do with bell towers. This view overlooks the Grosse Cloche bell tower over an 18th century jail attached to Saint Eloi Church. The spire in the frame was the bell tower of the Saint Michael Basilica (Fléche Basilique Saint-Michel). From analyzing the Google Earth 3D view, I found that this photograph must have been taken from the top of the Tour Pey Berland, a gothic bell tower situated beside the eleventh century Cathédrale Saint-André. 

A Google search of Tour Pey Berland easily found a modern day replica of this very angle on Imgur:

Photographs of Bordeaux show striking consistency of physical features over time, despite the ravages of two world wars. Photographs of cities like Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, however, tell quite a different story. To varying degrees, geolocation allows researchers to contextualize a soldier’s experience spatially—where were they and what were they experiencing in that place and time? What buildings were still standing? How has the cityscape or landscape changed? Using photographs to place personal stories within a larger context is important to understanding our collections.

Andrew Harman, MA, CA

Archivist, Center for American War Letters Archives

Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University

In Focus

Get Social


A collection of ethereal musings from the past ten centuries; these illuminations, prints, paintings, and photographs, curated by Stephen Ellcock, never fail to enchant.



Follow CollectSocialPhoto, a Nordic collaborative project developing methods for collecting social digital photography in museums and archives. Their website includes updates, resources, and information on related conferences and workshops throughout the world.

Online Opportunities

In case you missed it

Put on a kettle and listen to sessions delivered at 2017’s “Photo Archives IV: The Place of Photography,” an international conference whose focus was investigating photographs and photographic archives in relation to notions of place. 

Let’s get lost! 

Prepare to lose your day in this charming collection of early Japanese animation from the National Film Center, Tokyo. [Site is in English]

You (didn’t) have to be there

Street photography enthusiasts, rejoice! Closed for the pandemic, the 2020 Italian Street Photo Festival has taken its program online

On display

The works of Charles “Teenie” Harris, legendary chronicler of Pittsburgh’s African American community and photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier, now have a dedicated gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibition features iconic examples of Harris’s photographs and will be the focus of a number of educational programs and community events inspired by this world-renowned collection.

Get Involved

Time wasters

You are probably stuck inside anyway, so why not participate in the Getty Challenge?

**This one has been going on for a while–it might be stale now, but is still hilarious.

Lend a hand

Looking for useful ways to pass time during your next Zoom meeting? Spend a few moments tagging historic structures, details, and byways in NARA’s Citizen Archivist crowdsourcing project for the Bureau of Public Roads, 1896-1963 Records.

Group efforts

View crowdsourced images documenting scenes of self-isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic or submit your own to the Isolation Museum.


Learn something

Travel plans scrapped? Don’t despair–there are still are plenty of opportunities for distance learning. Check out the (occasionally free) offerings from SAA, NEDCC, and AMIA.

Polaroids from Heaven: Developing an Active Learning Session with Unconventional Visual Resources

Examples of student work from the “Alterations” assignment in the course, Alternative Photography.

A photograph of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing on a rose petal, a Polaroid of unexplained religious symbols in the clouds, and an image of a mysterious flash of light that eerily resembles the name of a Portuguese child visionary from 1917… How can archivists use controversial or unconventional photographs like these to support student learning? This post provides a lesson plan for an active learning session with archival visual resources that was part of the Alternative Photography course at the University of Dayton.  

As the liaison to the Department of Art & Design, I have many wonderful opportunities to collaborate with faculty in fine art, art history, and art education. I was particularly excited when I was put in touch with a faculty member teaching the course Alternative Photography, which focuses on non-traditional photographic processes and emphasizes experimentation with the photograph as a physical, social, and intellectual phenomenon. The content of this course was a perfect opportunity to use a fascinating archival collection of photographs and accompanying documents related to Marian apparitions–reported supernatural appearances by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The teaching faculty member and I developed a special collections instruction session that served as the foundation for an assignment called Alterations: Negative, Print, Space. The goal of the assignment was to introduce students to manipulation of the photographic negative, print, and viewing space. For this assignment, students were involved in all aspects of the photographic process including concept development, exposure of the film, formal manipulation of the negative/print, the making of the final print, and final display. The special collections instruction session provided context, historical background, and critical perspectives for the image-making portion of this assignment.

Prior to the session, students read the article, “Polaroids from Heaven: Photography, Folk Religion, and the Miraculous Image Tradition at a Marian Apparition Site” by Daniel Wojcik. During the session, students engaged in three separate but related activities: speed-dating with archival visual resources, pair and share, and affinity mapping. This culminated in a final discussion on the collection themes as they related to the assignment.

Students at work during the “speed-dating” activity with the Marian Apparitions collection.

Lesson Plan Outline

Speed-dating activity: Students analyzed an item from the archival collection and answered the questions: What is the item? When, where, and/or by whom was it created? What are some keywords that describe this item? What questions does this item raise for you?

Pair and share: Students shared their findings, initial reactions, and questions with a partner and discussed the prompts: Where do you see the photographer’s hand in these images? How might you think about this collection in the context of photographic alterations?

Affinity mapping: Students identified keywords from the speed-dating activity, wrote them on post-its, and mapped them into themed categories on a whiteboard. This became a launching point for further discussion on collection themes.

Outcomes and Reflection

Over the next two course meetings, students created images and then critiqued them. As a librarian teaching mostly one-shot sessions, the critique was the perfect opportunity to engage with students after the archives session and learn more about the outcomes and any potential impact of their experience with the collection. During the critique, students identified both direct and indirect impacts of engaging with the archival collection as a foundation for creating their own images. For example, one student identified the “spiritual experience” she had while creating images and another student mentioned that her images were directly inspired by the idea of creating an apparitional experience for the viewer. Other student work aesthetically referenced the archival collection. 

Through active learning, the collection facilitated encounters with analog photographic processes, analysis of the various dimensions of religious imagery, critical perspectives on photographic manipulation (both of the image and of the viewer), and discussion on the history and contexts of apparition photography.

Jillian Ewalt
Librarian for Visual Resources/Associate Professor
Marian Library, University of Dayton