With good news, however, came bad news: The university didn’t own the copyright.
Fortunately, the handwriting on the back provided one extra detail. It started with Vogelback Computing Center · 11:00pm · Feb. 28, 1977 – stuff I’ve seen before – but concluded with a somewhat legible signature. “I assume the photographer was C. Jaques,” wrote the archivist. And then, just like most archivists I reached out to, he went above and beyond. “Searching through the Northwestern student and faculty directory of 1976–1977, I find that there was a student by the name of Cynthia Jaques, enrolled in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.”
Now, I had a time and a name. But that time meant Cynthia grew up in the days before internet, before social networks, before the digitization of everything – as a matter of fact, her photograph showed only the humble beginnings of that digitization. That time meant, in other words, marginal internet presence. I searched high and low, but I only found a few Facebook profiles with photos that seemed too young (I created a Facebook account and contacted them anyway), a realtor somewhere far away from Northwestern (I still wrote a message), and… that was it. Who knew if Cynthia got married and changed her name. Who knew if Cynthia was still around.
The other approach was to contact a bunch of alumni organizations. I tried that, too. But weeks passed without hearing from anyone back.
And then the breakthrough came from a place I learned to treasure since starting this project: support from people who’ve done this before, and who wanted to see me succeed. I met up with a friend, talked to her about this and a few other photos I had trouble finding, and we brainstormed some ideas. Among them was: don’t just reach out to the alumni organization – reach out to someone in the alumni organization, writing an email to one person rather than a catch-all address. And don’t just ask for contact info – compose an entire message to Cynthia, and ask for it to be forwarded.
I did just that. Then, a month later I did just that again. Around the time I started thinking about grabbing the phone to make a call (something I dreaded), I got a response. “I just received the okay to reach out to Ms. Jaques, and forwarded your email along to her. I hope you two are able to connect!”
Things happen slowly, and then things happen quickly. Not two hours later, another email arrived in my inbox. Subject line: Northwestern photo. And an unfamiliar last name, attached to the first name I was hoping to see.
“Northwestern alumni department sent me your email about a photo from Vogelback computing center. I did graduate from Medill in 1977,” Cynthia wrote, mentioning she indeed took some photography courses there. Yes! I finally got in touch with the author. She was willing to help, but there was a final, devastating catch. “It could be mine,” she said, “but I don’t remember that photo.”
This felt like the worst outcome possible. Cynthia was willing to give me permission to use her photograph, but that permission would be useless if it wasn’t hers to give. After all of these months of trying, I was back to where I started – and with no leads left.
But there was one more lead I was unaware of. Thank god for the archivist going an extra mile. He sent me a scan of not just the front, but also the back of the photo, with this written in pencil: