04 October 2010

The United States in color from 1939-1943

For most people I'd say, the image that sums up the Great Depression in the US is Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. As iconic as the image of 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson is, that it's a black and white photograph takes it out of my ability to relate to her as a real human being. She's an archetype, she is The Depression and the struggle of a migrant worker's life is etched deeply into her careworn face. Even so, I have a hard time relating to her as a human being. I suppose I am a product of my generation, but black and white photography, despite its artistic appeal, makes its subjects seem unreal.


I'm admitting this as an ardent student of history. Studying the past is the best way to understand where you are now so far as I'm concerned and it's incredibly important to remember that history doesn't march in a straight line. It's a tapestry of interconnected threads and each thread depends on every other thread to make up the whole. It's too easy to cast the subjects of portraits and black and white photos in either/ or terms. Historical figures, like all human beings, were complicated and conflicted and they got through their lives the best way they could. The same as anybody. Life was not simpler, less violent, more directed, safer, cleaner or more wise in the past. The people who lived before us decried the state of things, clung to what ever they could, they loved, felt loss, smiled and laughed. They were us and I force myself to remember that any time I read something historical.

I've been obsessing for the last couple of years about US history in the years that lead up to World War II. Then, as now, the economy was spinning out of control and nobody seemed to know what was going on. I grew up listening to my parents' and grandmothers' stories about life during the Great Depression and it always thrilled me to hear about a time when butter was an expensive treat and everybody had a single pair of shoes. But parents and grandparents tend to tell the kids int heir lives the myths of their lives. It's a parental thing to do, to use one's life experiences for instructing a younger generation. It's been a real boon to flesh out those stories of expensive butter.

The world we live in today was built by the folks who survived the Depression and World War II, for better and for worse. Through a combination of hard work, self-reliance and a whole lot of government help, they left us a world where things like kitchen design matter.

Yesterday a great friend of this blog, Madame Sunday, popped a link from the Denver Post up onto Twitter. And the link contained 75 color photographs of life around the US between the years of  1939-43. I hate to admit it, but the subjects are easier to see as human beings because they're photographed in color. I spent hours yesterday pouring over these images and here are ten that really stood out to me.

Barker at the grounds at the state fair. Rutland, Vermont, September 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family. Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Distributing surplus commodities. St. Johns, Arizona, October 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Young African American boy. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1942 or 1943. Photo by John Vachon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Bayou Bourbeau plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative. Vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, August 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

African American migratory workers by a "juke joint." Belle Glade, Florida, February 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Clinton, Iowa, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Rural school children. San Augustine County, Texas, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by John Vachon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mike Evans, a welder, at the rip tracks at Proviso yard of the Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Chicago, Illinois, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

School children singing. Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The rest of these photos are on the Denver Post's website. Spend some time with them. As the economy flounders and as the US heads into another election season, it's important to remember what we have in common instead of concentrating so stridently on the things that set us apart.

6 comments:

  1. Wow. You aren't kidding. I have never seen color photos from that time period and they bring a whole other perspective to them. They convey so much more reality than the black and white as you said. These are incredible. Thanks for posting this!

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  2. I'm glad it's not just me with the same reaction to these color photos specifically because they're color photos.

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  3. Thank you and much love, honey! I've stumbled my way through "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" but I think you're right that the color images feel much more alive and relevant. Particularly now - great commentary.

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  4. I can't thank you enough for finding these images, I've been obsessing over them since yesterday.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this find - you are right - every single one of those photos, if in black and white, would go to the space of my brain that says "past" and give them a timeless, archetypal feeling. Viewing them in color is a completely different experience - it brings them directly into the present.

    I too am an ardent student of history - it is one of my passions. Because you're right - you can't really understand the world as it is today without knowing or having some understanding of the past.

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  6. Thanks for your comment Lauren and I'm relieved to know that you find these more relatable as color images too. I think it's a generational thing but when I see these people in color, I can see their humanity.

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