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Photo archive shows the warmth and magic over a century of Iowa everyday life

A black and white photo of a high school graduation party.
“FI0005983,” Iowa Falls, IA, 1920 by Mortenson, Jill
/Fortepan Iowa, “https://fortepan.us/photo/FI0005983/,” CC-BY-SA 4.0
A high school graduation party moment captured in 1963, contributed by Monte Ehlers.

Fortepan Iowa, an open source archival platform, represents everyday Iowa life and history through photos submitted by Iowans spanning from the 19th century to the start of the new millennium.

Most families have photographs that get passed down, but many can get lost or discarded over time. An innovative effort taking place at the University of Northern Iowa aims to collect photos from ordinary Iowa families throughout history to preserve and make the images available to the public in an online archive.

Thousands of pictures have already been uploaded as part of the project, called Fortepan Iowa. The archive presents photos in a timeline spanning from the 1860s to 2000, drawing on the power of place, organized by time and grouped by theme.

The project's director, UNI interactive digital studies professor Bettina Fabos, was inspired by a community photo archive in Hungary, Fortepan.hu, which was launched in 2010 and contains more than 175,000 photos. The name "Fortepan" pays homage to the Hungarian company FORTE, which made the black and white negative film called Fortepan that was sold throughout the world after World War II until 2001.

A team of founders including Fabos and colleagues from Colorado State University and Johns Hopkins University launched Fortepan.us in 2015, which houses Iowa's archive. The Hungarian project's first international sister site is made possible by an interdisciplinary team of scholars, developers and students - many based at UNI - and donors and volunteers who scan, research and tag the photos.

"It's not an official history of Iowa, it's an unofficial history of Iowa," she said. "It's a warm, happy, complicated, really rich history of Iowa and we think this history is worth preserving."

From black-and-white images of siblings playing catch on the farm to families gathered around the dinner table, displayed in chronological order, users can sort the photos by decade or keywords, like barns, dogs and parades. The prototype seeks to represent the personal, whimsical, poetic, significant and accidentally artistic moments of everyday Iowa life, and tell a rich story of the state's overlooked diversity and complexity. All of the photos can be downloaded for free.

The very first photos came from Fabos' students. She instructed them to gather 30 photos each from family members and relatives to add to the collection. When the students returned with the photos, many gushed about the eye-opening conversations they had with family members as a result of looking through old photos.

"We were just amazed at the little stories and the big stories that came from these photos," she said. "We realized that this is something that is so important, for families to actually use photos to access memories."

A black and white photo of people sitting around a dinner table in a home.
“FI0001671,” IA, 1950 by Henderson, Jesse
Fortepan Iowa, “https://fortepan.us/photo/FI0001671/,” CC-BY-SA 4.0
As a Black janitor working at the "white only" Waterloo Recreation Center in the 1950s, Jesse Cosby set out to offer recreational activities for local Black children. This and many other photos of Cosby were donated by his great nephew, Jesse Henderson.

Now she has a team with 10 interns who scan photographs, date images and collect metadata. Isaac Campbell, an artist and media producer and Fortepan Iowa's director of public outreach, received a Fulbright research grant to travel to Hungary to work directly with the original Fortepan team. There, he did "wheatpastings" around Budapest for a year — a method of public, temporary art that applies printed images to surfaces using flour, water and sugar.

A "wheatpasting" -- a photograph "pasted" to the wall using flour, sugar and water -- of a little girl holding a birthday cake. The real girl in the photograph, now aged, stands underneath the image on the wall, also holding a cake.
Fortepan Iowa contributor Shirley Dean was photographed in 2019 standing in front her 12-year-old self holding a birthday cake. Dean's photo was turned into a temporary mural pasted on College Hill in Cedar Falls.

He brought what he learned back to Iowa, installing wheatpaste murals in cities around the state, with plans to paste historical murals along the route of the 50th annual RAGBRAI this summer.

Today, Fortepan Iowa's archive has grown to more than 15,000 photos, and Fabos says they're just getting started.

Right now, the project is expanding through partnerships with several local libraries to put Fortepan in the hands of the public as much as possible. One collaboration is with the Cedar Falls Public Library to hold a monthly series of conversations on a variety of common interests including mid-century design and fish. The team is also developing a similar platform with the Connecticut Digital Archive based at the University of Connecticut. Fabos and Campbell say their infrastructure can support millions of photos, and their goal is to build their platform so it can structurally accommodate any state, Indigenous territory, or national park across the U.S.

Locally, Fortepan Iowa is developing a photo-match geolocation tool called Main Street 360º with the UNI campus as the prototype. This tool will create a decade-by-decade augmented reality experience for users to visit a physical area over time.

Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.