Jeff Phillips first saw these two photos of Edna while he was at an antique mall outside Saint Louis.
Jeff Phillips first saw these two photos of Edna while he was at an antique mall outside Saint Louis. Credit: Courtesy Jeff Phillips

About three years ago, Jeff Phillips, a Chicago-based photographer, was browsing through an antique mall outside Saint Louis when he came across a stack of 30 bright yellow boxes filled with Kodachrome slides. The first slide he pulled out was a snapshot of a middle-aged woman, perfectly centered within the frame, wearing a long, frilly pink dress and standing in front of a group of pine trees. The second slide was almost identical to the first, except that the woman was wearing a yellow dress. Phillips was impressed by the quirkiness of the composition. He bought all 30 boxes and hauled them home.

There were nearly 1,100 slides in total, with almost no other identifying information. One box was labeled “various children.” Another was, simply, “boat.” The photos most frequently featured the woman, almost always positioned in the exact center of the frame, but there were quite a few pictures of a middle-aged man, who Phillips surmised was her husband. A few hundred slides in, Phillips found a slide of the woman labeled “Edna” and another that identified the man as “Harry.”

Harry and Edna looked like a fun couple: they traveled a lot throughout the U.S. and Europe (they liked cruises) and went to a lot of parties, where, as Phillips observed, their smiles were not forced. Most of the pictures came from the 50s and 60s, the heyday of the slide. Of the two, Harry was by far the more skilled photographer, with a distinctive style. “I liked the way Harry would photograph through hotel room windows versus going out and taking a generic scenery shot,” Phillips says.

Phillips grew curious: Who were these people? Since he’s a social media expert—in his day job, he’s a social collaboration consultant—Facebook seemed the most logical way to hunt down people who might know something about the couple.

He set up a Facebook page called “Is This Your Mother?” and resolved to post a photo a day until the mystery was solved. He estimated he had enough to last three years. The page quickly attracted a devoted following who carefully combed the photos for clues to Harry and Edna’s identity. They cracked the mystery in just three weeks.

Edna and Harry Grossmann had lived in Frontenac, an affluent suburb of Saint Louis. They were married in 1923 and died in 1983 and 1986, respectively. They were members of the Shriners, who threw most of those parties. They had no children, but Phillips and his Facebook crew were able to track down a few nieces and nephews, who confirmed that Harry and Edna were just as delightful in real life as they appeared in photos.

What interested Phillips, though, was people’s reactions to Harry and Edna. “It’s like a Rorschach test,” he says. “It shows a lot about you as a person.” He points to one commenter who wrote that she was sad Edna had no children—even though no one knew if Edna had even wanted them.

Some of those comments will be included in “Lost and Found,” an exhibit of 30 of Harry and Edna’s photos curated by Phillips and the Facebook group that opens at Intuit this weekend. The photos will be mounted as though they’ve been projected onto the wall, the way Harry might have shown them to his and Edna’s friends.

The slide format is dead now, and so are albums. The Harry and Edna project has gotten Phillips thinking about, as he puts it, “the mortality of digital photography.” Camera phones make it much easier to take and share photos. But what happens to all those pictures when the technology changes? “Is this analogous to Harry’s slides being lost when the format became obsolete?”

That doesn’t mean he’s not grateful for digital technology. “In our age, Facebook is bringing more and more people together. There will be more and more of these kinds of stories. I think it’s great.”