Recently, I stumbled across a small online collection of rare color images taken by photographers from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information. The above photograph of Jack Whinery and his family was so remarkable and surprising that I immediately began exploring the online archive of the Library of Congress, which owns the images.
The 1,610 Kodachrome transparencies were produced by FSA and OWI photographers like John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee. They are less well known and far less extensive than their black and white images, but their rarity only increases their impact.
The black and white, Depression-era photographs of poverty-stricken, farm families have become so familiar in our culture that their color counterparts stun by comparison. When I look at a classic FSA image like Walker Evans’ photo of sharecropper Bud Fields and his family in Hale County, Alabama, there is a greater sense of distance between viewer and subject compared to the color images. It might be because I’ve seen this photograph before and my response has been dulled by overfamiliarity. Or it could be that the black and white medium suggests age or the exclusive status of “fine art.” But with the color photographs, these barriers of familiarity, time, and art are eliminated. In color, these people and places seem more modern, more real, more like us.
Digging around the Library of Congress archive brought other revelations. In 2006 the library mounted a show titled Bound for Glory: America in Color. It was the first major exhibition of color photographs taken by FSA/OWI photographers. The exhibit contained 70 images total (some included here) and was described by the LOC as follows:
These vivid scenes and portraits capture the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations, the nation’s subsequent economic recovery and industrial growth, and the country’s great mobilization for World War II.
The 70 images chosen for the exhibit certainly are worthy of attention, but sustain this official LOC narrative. They are only part of the story. As I explored the entire color archive, I was surprised to unearth so many images of Hispanic farmers and families, as well as workers in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The handful of photographs taken at Tule Lake War Relocation Center, a Japanese American internment camp in Newell, California, were also among those left out of the LOC exhibit. Although two images show young, well-dressed women smiling at the camera, Tule Lake, the largest and longest-lived of the ten camps built by the War Relocation Authority, was plagued with inadequate medical care, unsafe living and working conditions, and poor food.
In November 1943 a series of protests over poor living conditions at the camp prompted the Army to impose martial law. According to the National Historic Landmarks site, that same year Tule Lake was converted to a maximum security segregation center for evacuees from all the relocation centers whom the WRA identified as “disloyal.” Consequently, it had the most guard towers, the largest number of military police, eight tanks, and its own jail and stockade. If the darker side of Tule Lake was in evidence when Russell Lee visited in 1942 or 1943, his photographs show no trace of it.
This photograph of Amir Khalid and Amir Faisal was another find in the archive. It’s no accident that the sons of King Ibn Saud were visiting the United States at the beginning of the 1940s. In 1938 oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia along the coast of the Persian Gulf and full-scale development of the oil fields began in 1941. Under King Ibn Saud’s oversight, American oil companies were given significant access and authority over these new Saudi oil fields. As the Oxford Review explains, the United States was largely self-sufficient in oil until 1945, with coal playing a more significant role than it does today. This photograph marks the beginning of America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East.
The fact that none of these images made it into the Library of Congress exhibit is interesting in and of itself. To have included images of Hispanics, Saudi Arabian princes, or Japanese Americans living in internment camps, would have complicated the official LOC narrative–one that emphasizes war-time patriotism, as well as the plight of poor whites and African Americans–but it would have been a more complete picture of the country from 1939-1943. It’s a reminder that editing is its own art form; what is left out is often as important as what is included.
This color archive from the 30s and 40s is also an intriguing look at our reliance on natural resources. It is useful to be reminded of where our food, fuel, and consumer goods come from, to remember that our modern lifestyle is dependent on people, nature, and a complex infrastructure of highways, dams, railroads, and factories. As the photographer Edward Burtynsky has said, “All of the things we inhabit, and all of the things we possess, the material world we surround ourselves with, all comes from nature.” In her essay on Burtynsky, writer Rebecca Solnit quotes art critic Lucy Lippard, who refers to “the holes left in rural places to create urban erections”–a statement that is both truthful and amusing.
These color images remind us that history is a dynamic series of causes and effects. The Civil War left the South’s economy and farms in ruins. In the wake of slavery, war, and economic devastation, sharecropping and tenant farming emerged. Sources say that by the early 1930s there were 5.5 million white tenants, sharecroppers, and mixed cropping/laborers in the United States, and 3 million blacks. Some agricultural cooperatives also existed, such as these two co-ops photographed by Jack Delano in Puerto Rico and California.
But by the late 1930s and 1940s, increasing mechanization had virtually put an end to the sharecropping system in the United States. Many sharecroppers were forced off farms and fled North to work in factories, while others became migrant workers out West during World War II.
The LOC’s color archive records this shift from an agrarian society to an industrialized one. While there are idealized landscapes of the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the rolling hills along Skyline Drive in Virginia, there are also many compelling images of copper mines, sulfur acid plants, paper mills and new dams under construction. These striking images foreshadow the industrial landscape photographs of Edward Burtynsky, Robert Adams, and the visual typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
As America entered World War II, industrialization boomed, creating new jobs as well as a demand for natural resources. Douglas Dam is a good case in point. In order to manufacture new airplanes, the country needed to expand aluminum and magnesium production. But this required additional hydroelectric power. Although Senator Kenneth McKellar opposed the dam project because of the flooding of fertile Tennessee farmland, he lost his battle with Congress. Dam construction began just three days after FDR signed the bill approving the rush project. Douglas Dam required the purchase of 33,160 acres of land, the clearing of 5,182 acres of forest, the relocation of 525 families and 32 cemeteries, and the rerouting of several miles of roads.
The United States’ involvement in World War II marked a radical change not only in the nation’s economy, but also in the style and subject matter of official FSA/OWI images. In 1942 the Office of War Information was formed to promote patriotism, control war news, warn about foreign spies, and to recruit women into war work. Photographers like Alfred Palmer and Howard Hollem were charged with documenting the war effort.
In 1943 the photographic division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was subsumed by the OWI. Until that time the FSA had been an independent agency, with its Information Division headed by Roy Stryker. Stryker played a formative role in the agency, doling out specific shooting assignments to photographers like Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Jack Delano. He preferred photographs that “related people to the land and vice versa” and encouraged FSA photographers to focus on certain themes, often providing them with detailed information about a town’s economy and population.
The goals of the FSA and OWI were at cross-purposes from the start and their photographic styles couldn’t be more dissimilar. As Alfred Palmer’s official website explains, Palmer and Stryker “shared creativity and conflict during those years in the dissident approaches to portraying America to herself. While Stryker’s unit showed a national self scrutiny of post depression America, Palmer sought to emphasize a moral
This creative divide is immediately apparent when looking at the images I’ve collected here. While FSA photographers like Jack Delano and Russell Lee recorded their subjects in natural light, either going about their daily business or posed looking straight into the camera, OWI photographers like Palmer and Howard Hollem had a flare for the dramatic.
OWI photographers were fond of positioning the camera beneath their subjects, which made them appear more imposing and regal. They artfully arranged their subjects shooting guns, throwing grenades, or in Hollem’s case, awkwardly clutching the weapons of war. Palmer also used artificial lighting for many of his indoor portraits. Some of these photographs are more like recruiting posters or slickly produced clothing catalogs than documentary images. Hollem’s photograph of a navy sailor embracing a bomb is a good example of how over the top some of these OWI photographs were.
Of course, both FSA and OWI photographs were made with specific agendas in mind; it’s just that these agendas are easier to decipher when a photograph is obviously staged. As Errol Morris has shown us, the controversies over authenticity in the Depression-era images of FSA photographers like Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein are more subtle, but worth unravelling.
“We all know that staging is that big no-no in photography,” Morris recently told NPR. “I would call it a fantasy that we can create some photographic truth by not moving anything, not touching anything, not interacting with the scene that we’re photographing in any way. If you think you’re going to create an unposed photograph, think again. There is no such thing.”
As Morris has shown in his new book Believing is Seeing, the differences between journalistic evidence, fine art, and propaganda are faint. Photographs inhabit an uncomfortable space between subjective art and objective documentation. If a photographer comes across the skull of a cow in a drought-stricken landscape and takes a picture of it, no one will argue that the resulting image is a photographic record of a drought. But what if that photographer moves the cow skull ten feet where the light is better, and then takes the picture? Is that image any less truthful, any less representative of a drought?
There are many ways of conveying reality. We would be naive to believe that photography has some special access to truth that other forms of art can’t possess.
The merging of the FSA and OWI was short-lived. The photographic division of the FSA was disbanded after only one year, and in 1945 the OWI was also terminated. The over 164,000 negatives and prints (including the 1,610 Kodachrome color transparencies) produced by both offices were moved to the Library of Congress, where they are housed to this day.
Looking at this collection, I can’t help but think of the economic and social transitions our country is currently experiencing. The seeds of many of our current troubles are evident here–our increasing consumption of natural resources, the ongoing conflict between conservation and development, our reliance on cheap labor and on war to jump-start a sputtering economy. As these photographs show, the United States has confronted these radical transitions before.
I’ve collected 95 of my favorite color photographs from the FSA/OWI archive here for you to peruse. If you find these images as compelling as I do, I hope you’ll share them. I’d also love to hear your own thoughts about these historic photographs in the comments section.
(Note: All captions were written by the FSA or OWI unless otherwise noted)
If you would like to learn more about FSA and OWI photography or some of the other photographers and writers mentioned in this article, I recommend these publications, available here or at your local bookstore or library:
Don’t miss the next Gwarlingo feature. Subscribe to Gwarlingo by email. (It’s easy, safe, and free). You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook or share a “like” on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.
If you enjoyed this post, please spread the word by sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc.
Looking for an interesting book for yourself or your students? Check out the new Gwarlingo Store–a hand-picked selection of some of my favorite books on photography, art, the creative process, and more. All of your purchases directly support Gwarlingo.
This article is dedicated to my father, Michael Aldredge, with gratitude and thanks.