Picturing the past

Fortepan Iowa launches scanning hub in Webster City to preserve visual memories

-Marlene Jeys / FORTEPAN IOWA
This screenshot from the Fortepan Iowa site shows three little girls in Webster County in the 1940s.

WEBSTER CITY– Precious pictures of the past. We all have them. But too many are simply discarded or consigned to a sloppy pile in an antique store, their family connections gone, their stories lost forever.

Can they be saved?


In Iowa, an ambitious undertaking launched by Bettina Fabos is digitizing, curating, and therefore preserving, the images that portray everyday life in this state.

It is called Fortepan Iowa, and it is for everyone.

“I was in Hungary in 2013 working on a project — now finished — called ‘Proud & Torn: A Visual Memoir of Hungarian History.’ It’s a photo history of Hungary with about 1,000 images,” Fabos said. “And in the course of making this project, I discovered Fortepan Hungary and it was a godsend.”

Fabos, a University of Northern Iowa professor of visual communication and interactive digital studies whose family roots are in Hungary, saw the value of Fortepan for her Midwestern home.

“With ‘Proud & Torn’I aimed to tell the story of Hungary through the eyes of everyday people — beginning with my family members and my own collection of family snapshots — and that is what Fortepan Hungary is doing as well. The archive cherishes and celebrates the family snapshot and makes it clear that history is not about officials and people in power,” Fabos said.

“Their perspective, which I share, is that everyone makes history, and everyone is impacted by the decisions of people in power, and these stories — the stories of everyday life — are part of our shared history, our shared collective memory.”

On Thursday, Fabos and UNI colleague Isaac Campbell will inaugurate a Fortepan Iowa scanning hub, located at Kendall Young Library in Webster City. Their public presentation in the library’s lower level meeting room begins at 6:30 p.m.

“People will learn about the archive itself — we will show lots of gorgeous Iowa photos at this presentation — but they will also learn about what we have in store for Webster City,” Fabos said.

“We will explain how to use it and why it is so important to scan images at high resolution,” she said. “We want to encourage people to join the library’s scanning club, learn how to scan at high resolution, and share photos before they are thrown away.”

In addition, local Fortepan Iowa images will be featured in a curated exhibition that opens May 11 in the Jane Young Room at the Kendall Young Library. Fortepan Iowa will also be at the root of a traveling lecture series, in which local historians will interpret the archive at five libraries across Iowa, Kendall Young being one of them. And Fortepan Iowa’s images will take on a grander scale in a public wheat paste art installation that has yet to be scheduled.

“We have an Iowa Arts Council grant to install five wheat paste photo murals on buildings in downtown Webster City. We can’t wait to show people what that will look like,” Fabos said.

Kendall Young Library is one of seven scanning sites across Iowa. Fortepan Iowa’s main hub is at the University of Northern Iowa. Another hub was recently established at the University of Iowa to handle a collection of 1.5 million donated images. Other local sites are at public libraries in Anamosa, Cedar Falls, Ottumwa and Sumner.

Fabos envisions Fortepan bringing Iowans together.

“I hope it continues to grow, and that Fortepan becomes a household name. We are beginning to see Fortepan Iowa used as a primary resource in schools, and so I hope it is heavily used in K-12 education to promote intergenerational conversations about Iowa and history.”

All of this is because she sought to tell stories of her family’s native country.

“I thought the Hungarian archive was so amazing because it was such a departure from other archives and so easy to search for images. Fortepan collections are organized, on the main interface, according to chronology rather than by donor, although you can search by donor specifically elsewhere. The archive also privileges the image itself. That means when you search for images, you use a timeline, with large images above it, and when you land on 1930, for example, all images from 1930s across the archive are juxtaposed, so you have immediate access to the visual story of Hungary from the 1930s.

“The archive is also curated so each image holds a special resonance. And, to make it even better, each image is scanned at high resolution and you can download any image you want for free, you just need to attribute the donor and the Fortepan archive.

“As an artist working on a project that was so image heavy, Fortepan was heaven — and I couldn’t stop looking at the photographs, they drew me in. It’s a ‘people’s’ archive.”


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