Find Harry And Edna at Intuit's Latest Exhibit

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 1, 2014 6:00PM

2014_05_30_harryandedna_03.jpg

How many selfies did you snap last weekend? Will you look at them again after a week? A year? Fifty years?

Intuit’s (756 N. Milwaukee Ave.) latest exhibit presents a photographic mystery that was solved using social media. Perhaps even more poignant are the questions it raises about engagement with memory and identity.

In 2011, photographer Jeff Phillips purchased a box of 1,100 slides at an antique market outside St. Louis. Spanning about ten years sometime in the late 1950’s and early ‘60s, Phillips was drawn to the sumptuously preserved Kodachrome images of a middle-aged couple. The unlabeled slides offered delightful Mid-Century kitsch from the woman posing in colorful dresses to the decks of cruise ships and lots of parties.

The turning point for Phillips was finding one slide labeled “Edna” and another inscribed with “Harry.” He began to wonder who these people were and why their memories had been abandoned.

With a day job as a social media consultant, Phillips applied his expertise and launched a Facebook page entitled “Is This Your Mother?”; Determined to uncover the couple’s identity, he posted one photo from the collection each day and assumed it would take three years to solve the mystery.

Visitors quickly engaged in the search. They traced down the insignia on the cruise line china, bumper stickers, and passenger manifests. To Phillips’ great surprise, the mystery of Harry and Edna was solved in just three weeks.

Lost and Found: The Search for Harry and Edna presents highlights from the couple’s slide collection.

The images offer a charming portrayal of upper middle class Midwest life in the middle of the last century. From the Piazzo San Marco to the local Shriner lodge, women posing in Hawaii to women drying pots in the kitchen, Harry and Edna’s photos reveal a well-traveled, societal life.

Unlike the found photographs of Vivian Meier, Phillips emphasizes that the collection represents vernacular photography. “Harry wasn’t a master photographer,” Phillips told Chicagoist at the opening reception earlier this month. “These are everyday snapshots of a family traveling and having fun. They’re windows into a world, superb snapshots.”

2014_05_30_harryandedna_01.jpg

To distance the images from “works of art” and recall their original intention, the images are mounted unframed. A projector slideshow is set up so visitors can peruse the collection as Harry and Edna would have, while an iPad station juxtaposes our current method of image consumption.

Accompanying many of the photos are the comments left by Facebook page visitors. Viewers often see themselves in these decades-old images, whether it’s at a tree farm or long ago motel, and often imagine stories for Harry and Edna based on the photos. Visitors have projected their own emotions onto this project, exposing their personal feelings, reflections and regrets.

“It’s fascinating to take the images out of context and ask people what they think they are,” Phillips said. “I’ve learned more about people and sociology than history or photography.”

The exhibit also includes a cardboard cutout of Edna in a life jacket and a call to Instagram her in order to “send her around the world again.” If anyone unearths my Instagram account in 50 years, I hope they do the same.

Exhibit runs through August 30, 2014; Admission: $5, Intuit Members and children under 12: Free