Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Photographs Documenting the Great Depression

dorothea lange

During the Great Depression, The Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) hired photographers to travel across America to document the poverty that gripped the nation, hoping to build support for New Deal programs being championed by F.D.R.'s administration.

Legendary photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein took part in what amounted to the largest photography project ever sponsored by the federal government. All told, 170,000 photographs were taken, then catalogued back in Washington DC. The Library of Congress became their eventual resting place.

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We first mentioned this historic project back in 2012, when the New York Public Library put a relatively small sampling of these images online. But now we have bigger news.

Yale University has launched Photogrammar, a sophisticated web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing these 170,000 historic photographs.

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The Photogrammar platform gives you the ability to search through the images by photographer. Do a search for Dorothea Lange's photographs, and you get over 3200 images, including the now iconic photograph at the bottom of this post.

Photogrammar also offers a handy interactive map that lets you gather geographical information about 90,000 photographs in the collection.

And then there's a section called Photogrammar Labs where innovative visualization techniques and data experiments will gradually shed new light on the image archive.

According to Yale, the Photogrammar project was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Directed by Laura Wexler, the project was undertaken by Yale’’s Public Humanities Program and its Photographic Memory Workshop.

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Top image: A migrant agricultural worker in Marysville migrant camp, trying to figure out his year's earnings. Taken in California in 1935 by Dorothea Lange.

Second image: Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Photo taken in Hale County, Alabama in 1935 by Walker Evans.

Third image: Wife and children of sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas. By Arthur Rothstein. 1935.

Fourth image: Wife of Negro sharecropper, Lee County, Mississippi. Again taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1935.

Bottom image: Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Taken by Dorothea Lange in Nipomo, California, 1936.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

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Hear the Very Moment When World War I Came to an End

Robert Graves' poem “Armistice Day, 1918” begins with a riot of sound in a town in North East England. “What’s all this hubbub and yelling, / Commotion and scamper of feet,” he writes, “With ear-splitting clatter of kettles and cans, / Wild laughter down Mafeking Street?” The poem grows somber, then embittered, ending in a chilling silence for the “boys who were killed in the trenches, / Who fought with no rage and no rant.” It’s a familiar contrast from much World War I poetry—the hooting civilian crowds and the grim, silent soldiers counting their losses.

One project, created as part of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice last year, gave us a different take on this WWI theme of sound and silence —using innovative techniques from 1918 that turned the final shelling of the war into visual data, then translating that data back into sound a century later. Rather than celebration, the “ear-splitting clatter” is the sound of mass death, and the silence, though surely “uneasy,” as Matt Novak writes, must also have been revelatory.

In the “graphic record” of the Armistice, just below, we can “see” the deafening sounds of war and the first three silent seconds of its end, at 11 A.M. November 11th, 1918. The film strip records six seconds of vibration from six different sources, as the graphic, from the Army Corps of Engineers, informs us. “The broken character of the records on the left indicates great artillery activity; the lack of irregularities on the right indicates almost complete cessation of firing.”

You might notice a couple little breaks in one line on the right—likely the result of an exuberant “doughboy firing his pistol twice close to one of the recording microphones on the front in celebration of the dawn of peace.” But this was 1918—field recording technology barely existed, though a few battlefield attempts were made (at least one survives). The “microphones” in question were actually “barrels of oil dug into the ground,” notes Jason Daley at Smithsonian.

This technique, called “sound ranging,” worked by registering vibration, similar to a seismograph's operation, and helped special units locate enemy fire, using “photographic film to visually record noise intensity.” The film above was part of the centenary exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum, which also commissioned sound designers Coda to Coda to reconstruct the dramatic moment with an audio interpretation. At the top of the post, hear what the seconds before and after the Armistice likely sounded like, as recorded on the American front at the River Moselle.

Listening to the seconds of the war’s end from the battlefield perspective—rather than streets filled with cheering crowds—is rather chilling, “a sudden reprieve from the staccato of weapons blasting,” Novak writes. The “graphic record” of the Armistice also shows us “just how horrifically precise and cruel war can be.” The slaughter could have been stopped in an instant, by the mutual decree of world leaders, at maybe any time during those harrowing four years.

On November 11 at 11 A.M., “the guns fell silent,” writes the Imperial War Museum, and “a new world began.” But as artists like Graves remind us, for the returning maimed and traumatized soldiers and the hundreds of thousands of bereaved families, the war didn’t end when the noise finally stopped.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Paul McCartney is Dead Conspiracy Theory, Explained

Hoaxes used to be fun, I imagine, before the internet turned them into weapons of mass disinformation. One shudders to think what kind of lunacy might have resulted had the Paul McCartney-is-dead-and-has-been-replaced-by-a-lookalike hoax first spread on Facebook instead of college newspapers, local radio stations, and good-old word of mouth. The hoax is emblematic not only of how misinformation spread differently fifty years ago, but also how the counterculture figured out information warfare, and used it to produce reams of satirical proto-viral content.

Whether the author of the original 1969 article—“Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?,” from the Drake University student newspaper the Times-Delphic—intended to fool the public hardly matters. His speculation reads like parody, like a star chart crossed with lurid tabloid gossip that, through a strange twist of fate created a network of people who believed that Paul was killed in a 1966 car crash and the band found an imposter named Billy Shears to replace him.

It should be noted that Paul McCartney is very much alive and has not been played by an impersonator for fifty years. There are no “two sides” to this story. There is the life of Paul McCartney and there is a strange and amusing rumor that never harmed anyone, except the Paul McCartney of its imagination. "Paul is Dead" ranks highly among “music’s most WTF conspiracy theories,” also the title of the Rolling Stone video above, which aims to explain “the original insane rock n’ roll conspiracy theory.”

The Beatles had a lot of fun with the conspiracy, doubly hoaxing their fans by playing along occasionally. McCartney responded with his classic wit: “If I were dead, I’d be the last to know it.” But publicly confirming or denying Paul McCartney’s body snatching didn't matter. Like those who claimed Stanley Kubrick staged the moon landing and left clues in The Shining, true believers found evidence everywhere they looked.

The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s supposedly represents Paul’s funeral; his doppelgänger allegedly wears a patch with the letters O.P.D.—officially pronounced dead.” (It’s actually O.P.P., “Ontario Provincial Police.”); lyrics played backwards spell it out: “Paul is Dead.” As with most crackpot theories, there is one crucial missing element: motive. Why would the band not only cover up Paul’s death but leave trails of breadcrumbs on every subsequent record?

Why does the villain explain their entire plan to the hero as soon as they get the upper hand? Why do killers leave detailed, incriminating documents called “The Plan” on their hard drives on Dateline? Who can say? In the world of weird conspiracy theories, conspirators are compelled to place cryptic but decipherable clues all over the place. It’s like they want to be caught, or it’s like conspiracy fans desperately want to believe they do. Either way, as far as conspiracy theories go, “Paul is Dead” earns its “WTF” status. It also bears the distinction of never actually having involved anyone’s death.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The History of Europe from 400 BC to the Present, Animated in 12 Minutes

What does the future of Europe look like? Geopolitical times such as these do make one ponder such questions as, say, "In what shape (if any) will the European Union make it through this century?" But as any historian of Europe knows, that continent has seldom had an easy time of it: European history is a history of conquests, rebellions, alliances made and broken, and of course, wars aplenty — a major piece of the rationale behind the creation of organizations like the European Union in the first place. As a result, the division of Europe by the many groups and individuals who have laid claim to pieces of it has, over the past 2500 years, seldom held steady for long, as you can see on the animated map above.

The Roman Empire did manage to paint the map red, literally, in the second and third centuries, but during all eras before and after it looks as multicolored as it was politically disunited. In earlier times, Europe was home to peoples with names like the Gauls, Iberians, Celts, and Scythians, as well as empires like the Achaemenid and Seleucid Empire.

After the First World War, though — and the dissolution of such entities as the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — the labels start to look more familiar. Most of us remember the event marked by the last big change to this map, the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Many of us even spent years thereafter in classrooms whose world maps still depicted the USSR as one mighty bloc.)

The map's animation begins in 400 BC and ends in 2017 with Europe as a collection of nation-states, each of which we now regard as not just politically but culturally distinct. But watching the full two-and-a-half-millennia time-lapse reminds us that every country in Europe has broken off from, joined with, or otherwise descended from another place, indeed many other places, most of which have long since ceased to exist. In the 21st century, one often hears Europe described as essentially unchanging, stuck in its ways, ossified, and an afternoon spent watching the proceedings of European Union bureaucracy would hardly disabuse anyone of that notion. But then, wouldn't observers of Europe have felt the same way back in the heyday of Rome?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Makes Guernica So Shocking? An Animated Video Explores the Impact of Picasso’s Monumental Anti-War Mural

What emotion did you feel the first time you saw Picasso's Guernica? Perhaps curiosity or fascination, and maybe even surprise, given how different the painting looks from everything else in a museum or an art-history textbook. There was almost certainly a dash of confusion as well, but you probably didn't feel the kind of shock you would have if you had learned what many of its early viewers did. Just what gave Guernica its early impact is the central question of the animated TED-Ed video above, written by humanities scholar Iseult Gillespie. "How can we make sense of this overwhelming image," asks its narrator, "and what exactly makes it a masterpiece of anti-war art?"

Finding the answer requires going back to April 26th, 1937, when "Fascist forces bombed the Basque village of Guernica in Northern Spain. It was one of the worst civilian casualties of the Spanish Civil War, waged between the democratic republic and General Franco’s fascist contingent." For Picasso, it sparked the "frenzied period of work" in which he created this 25-and-a-half-foot-wide modernist mural named for the ruined village. Guernica's "monumental canvas is disorienting from the start, rendered in the abstracted Cubist style Picasso pioneered." That style "afforded viewers multiple and often impossible perspectives on the same object; a technique considered shocking even in Picasso’s domestic scenes."

All great works of art unite form and substance, and here Picasso used a shocking technique to render shocking material: "The style offers a profoundly overwhelming view of violence, destruction, and casualties. Multiple perspectives only compound the horror on display — sending the eyes hurtling around the frame in a futile hunt for peace." But the eyes find only a horse run through with a spike, a screaming woman holding a dead child, a villager about to be consumed by flames, and the helplessly broken statue of a soldier. "Each of these figures bordering the painting are horribly trapped, giving the work an acute sense of claustrophobia. And where you might expect the canvas’ massive size to counteract this feeling, its scale only highlights the nearly life-sized atrocities on display. "

A lifelike depiction of such a scene would be more difficult to look at, but the aesthetic Picasso used, which at a modern viewer's first glance might appear cartoonish and even humorous, makes Guernica much more haunting in the long term — a term that has exceeded 80 years now, during which the painting's considerable power has grown more subtle as the events of the Spanish Civil War have grown distant. "Like the bombing of Guernica itself, Picasso’s painting is dense with destruction. But hidden beneath this supposed chaos are carefully crafted scenes and symbols, carrying out the painting’s multifaceted attack on fascism." Yet it was also simple enough to rile up the Gestapo, one of whose officers barged into Picasso's apartment in occupied Paris, pointed at a photograph of Guernica, and asked, "Did you do this?" No, the artist replied, "you did."

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The Scandalous Painting That Helped Create Modern Art: An Introduction to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Scandalous Painting That Helped Create Modern Art: An Introduction to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

Here in the 21st century, only the most sheltered among us could be shocked by the sight of a naked body. It would seem that the whole of human history has at least that in common with us: only certain societies at certain times have considered nudity a force worth suppressing. But then, has the problem ever been nudity in general, or rather the context, the nature, and the implications of particular instances of nudity? It's fair to say that Titian's Venus of Urbino has scandalized practically no one. Yet three centuries later, Édouard Manet's outwardly similar 1865 canvas Olympia sent shockwaves through the Paris art world. Why?

The rules of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts at the time dictated that "great art was supposed to convey a moral or intellectual message," says the narrator of Vox's video essay on Olympia above. "All acceptable art fell into one of five categories, ranked by their capacity to deliver those messages." The lesser of these were still lifes and landscapes, in the middle fell genre paintings, and the greatest were portraits and historical works. And "equally important to what was painted was how it was painted," with more points going to "idolized, prettified visions of the world, smooth and beautiful with no body hair and flawless skin," all painted in a way "that follow the rules of depth and perspective, meaning it looks like it could exist in the real world."

The Academy of Fine Arts would pay little regard, then, to the "stark and unnatural colors" of Olympia, its "rough and textured" brushstrokes, and its much "flatter and less complex" look than the Renaissance realism idolized in those days. That Manet would dare give his obvious "homage" to the Venus of Urbino a title like Olympia, a common nom de guerre for prostitutes in 19th-century Paris, caused some seriously ruffled feathers as well. So why did the Academy put Manet's painting on display in the first place? "It probably had something to do with his growing popularity. You can see his influence so clearly in what came next. He led the charge towards Modernism in the late 1800s, starting with the Impressionists — Monet, Degas — who adopted his penchant for modern themes and lucent brushstrokes."

A more 20th-century reading of Olympia holds up the painting as proof that "no one entity gets to decide what art should look like." An episode of the ArtCurious podcast about Olympia goes further still, claiming for Manet's subject the status of a feminist icon. But even the painting's contemporary detractors saw something important in it. Émile Zola at first seemed to dismiss the work by writing, "You wanted a nude, and you chose Olympia, the first that came along." But he also admitted that Olympia captured something more genuine than even the most gloriously realistic paintings could: "When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Completely Unsafe, Vertigo-Inducing Footage of Workers Building New York’s Iconic Skyscrapers

Would anyone in their right mind sign up for a job that had a high risk of mortality/disability? Or a job where red hot metal is being hurled directly at your face? Back in the 1920s this was the lot of the men who built New York’s skyline, the men who constructed the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, giant phallic symbols of America’s burgeoning wealth and power.

In this short clip (remastered and quite decently colorized) from the Smithsonian Channel, we get a brief glimpse of the perils encountered daily on the building site. Nicknamed “roughnecks,” the narrator points out that they work without harnesses, safety ropes, or hard hats. Red hot rivets are thrown at men on the metal beams higher up and they are meant to catch them with what looks like a tin funnel. You can see the thinnest of ropes used to lift the now-iconic stainless steel art-deco eagles into place by men weary felt hats and no gloves.

The workers came from Europe, many who had trained on ships. Some came from Montreal’s Kahnawake reservation. The latter, known as Iron Walkers, were Mohawk, known for working fearlessly at great heights.

“A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true,” Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais said in 2002. “We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better.”

Much of this work was documented by photographer Lewis Hine, who captured a mix of brute strength and gravity defying courage along with private moments of rest, catching a smoke or taking lunch. You can see many of his famous photos in this clip:

The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, and reached a height of 1,046 feet (319 m), featuring 77 floors. It held its fame as the world’s tallest building for only 11 months. In 1931 workers completed the Empire State Building, standing at 1,454 feet (443.2 m) and housing 102 floors. (That’s dinky compared to the current record-holder: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which stands at 2,722 feet (829.8 m)).

Heads up: The Smithsonian Channel clip has some of the worst examples of YouTube comments among the videos we’ve highlighted over the year, as if people still don’t work in terrible and unsafe conditions in order to feed their families and pay rent. And look! Here’s a guy who walks out onto the Chrysler eagle just for fun. Don’t say we didn’t warn you:

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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