Any photography geeks out there that are as old as I can remember the film company “Fortepan.” Yes, this was back in the day (a phrase I get to use now that I’m over 60), when you bought a roll of film, installed it in your camera and then went out taking pictures until the roll was used up. You then took the film roll out of your camera and took it to a film processing store and dropped off the roll and waited a week or so to pick up your pictures.

I know this all sounds really time consuming to younger photographers that are used to the instant gratification of digital photography, but there was something about the anticipation of waiting for those pictures to be developed that was…uh, the word escapes me now. But frustrating is close.

FORTEPAN IOWA is still related to photography, but it is really an interesting and exciting project. It is housed at the University of Northern Iowa, and the purpose of this project is to collect photos from everyday Iowans that capture our communities, families, towns and lifestyles in Iowa.

The website says, “Fortepan Iowa features curated photos taken by ordinary Iowans over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The photos represent the personal, whimsical, poetic, significant, and accidentally artistic moments of everyday Iowa life, and tell a rich story of Iowa’s great diversity and complexity.”

How do I know about this project and why am I sharing it with you? Well, back in August I wrote about my experience going back to grad school after my retirement. I’m a 60-something old guy doing work in the Public History program at UNI. One of the requirements for me is to intern with a project that involves some aspect of public history and FORTEPAN IOWA is the one.

So every week for the past 8 weeks, I’ve been learning how to scan pictures, tag them and get them ready for publication. Here is a description of the process, again, from the FORTEPAN IOWA website:

“The project serves as an ever-growing public website, providing opportunities for deep reflection on who we are as a State. The aim is to find and digitize evocative archival photographs taken by everyday Iowans—photographs that might disappear or be thrown away—and organize them into an easily searchable visual chronology, with other functionalities that help you browse through, geo-locate, tag, comment upon, and download the images.”

Yes, I’ve been involved now in all these steps. It is a very detail-oriented process (not my strength) but it is very rewarding. It is exciting to see this Iowa Communal Scrapbook grow to nearly 15,000 photos. I have been able to add over 200 of my own photo collection to this treasure-chest of images.

The project is spearheaded by Bettina Fabos, who is about as enthusiastic as anyone I have ever met. Bettina Fabos is Professor of Interactive Digital Studies and Visual Communication at the University of Northern Iowa. She is an award-winning producer of digital history projects and researches noncommercial digital archiving, the Creative Commons movement, and interactive timelines.

Bettina lives and breathes Iowa photos. If you have a photo of Iowa, Iowans, or anything about Iowa, she gets excited about it. With her leadership, enthusiasm and vision, she is making this public use website into something that all Iowans (and others) will be able to use and contribute to. If you have a collection of photos of Iowa and Iowans, you need to contact me and I’ll get them in line to be scanned, curated and uploaded to the FORTEPAN IOWA website.

You can try this for yourself and see what is already out there on the website. Click FORTEPAN and you’ll see images from the collection like the one below. It is only one of nearly 15,000 images that are nicely organized by a timeline across the bottom which allows you to search by year. There are also filters that allow you to search by any number of other categories, like a town name, amusement parks, campgrounds, cities, or other topics. It is an amazing search engine.

The interface, showing a large photo of two boys with a truck at a camping site, the thumbnail timeline view below, and the clickable timeline below that.
The interface.

And the best part is this is YOUR Iowa scrapbook. These are free-use photos that are available for public download and carry a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license. That simply means you are free to use them.

We invite you to View, Tag, Comment on, or Download any Fortepan Iowa image you care to engage with. They are for you. They are for all of us. They represent a “public park” of Iowa images, an Iowa commons of shared public history.

So what does a retired guy do after retirement? Getting involved in the FORTEPAN IOWA movement has been fun, exciting and expanding learning project for me, and I am grateful to be a part of it. I am having the time of my life and enjoying every minute of this experience. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when I returned to the academic world as a student, but so far I have to give this an A+ for retirement.

But you don’t have to go to grad school to participate. If you want to contribute photos I would encourage you to email me and I will walk you through the process of getting them collected, scanned and curated for publication on FORTEPAN IOWA website.

This blog post was first published by Dan Henderson in Things We Don’t Talk About Like Politics & Religion, October, 21, 2022.