1,600 Rare Color Photographs Depict Life in the U.S During the Great Depression & World War II

The title of Walk­er Evans and James Agee’s extra­or­di­nary work of lit­er­ary pho­to­jour­nal­ism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, may have lost some of its iron­ic edge with sub­se­quent acclaim and the fame of its writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. First begun in 1936 as a project doc­u­ment­ing the large­ly invis­i­ble lives of white share­crop­ping fam­i­lies in rur­al Alaba­ma, when the book appeared in print in 1941 it only sold about 600 copies. But over time, writes Mal­colm Jones at Dai­ly Beast, “it has estab­lished itself as a unique and endur­ing mashup of report­ing, con­fes­sion, and orac­u­lar prose.” As essen­tial as Agee’s doc­u­men­tary prose poet­ics is to the book’s appeal, Evans’ pho­tographs, like those of his many Depres­sion-era con­tem­po­raries, have served as mod­els for gen­er­a­tions of pho­tog­ra­phers in decades hence.

Evans “pho­tographs are not illus­tra­tive,” wrote Agee in the Pref­ace. “They, and the text, are coequal, mutu­al­ly inde­pen­dent, and ful­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive.” If “the text was writ­ten with read­ing aloud in mind,” and Agee want­ed us to hear, not sim­ply see the lan­guage, per­haps we are also meant to see the indi­vid­u­als Evans cap­tured, rather than just gaze at weath­ered faces and bat­tered cloth­ing, and view their bear­ers col­lec­tive­ly as for­lorn objects of pity.

More­over, we shouldn’t look at these indi­vid­u­als only as mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar nation­al group. In the book’s first para­graph, Agee writes:

The world is our home. It is also the home of many, many oth­er chil­dren, some of whom live in far-away lands. They are our world broth­ers and sis­ters….

We are meant to see the sub­jects of Evans’ pho­tographs and Agee’s exquis­ite descrip­tions as dis­tinc­tive parts who make up the whole of humanity—or, more pre­cise­ly, the world’s labor­ing peo­ple. Agee opens with a famous epi­graph from The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo: “Work­ers of the world, unite and fight. You have noth­ing to lose but your chains, and a world to win.” (With a can­ny qual­i­fy­ing foot­note explain­ing these words and their author as poten­tial­ly “the prop­er­ty of any polit­i­cal par­ty, faith, or fac­tion”).

Sev­er­al pho­tog­ra­phers employed, like Evans, by the Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion dur­ing the Great Depres­sion shared these sen­si­bil­i­ties. The sym­pa­thies of Dorothea Lange, for exam­ple, lay with work­ing peo­ple, not with the noblesse oblige of mid­dle-class audi­ences who might sup­port relief efforts but who had lit­tle desire to min­gle with the great Amer­i­can unwashed. Many viewers—disconnected from rur­al life—stared at the pho­tographs, writes Car­rie Melis­sa Jones, “in issues of the now-defunct Life mag­a­zine, Time, For­tune, Forbes, and more,” and “took a pater­nal­is­tic view of the south, ask­ing: ‘How do we save them from them­selves?’”

Can view­ers of Depres­sion-era pho­tographs today put aside their implic­it or explic­it sense of moral supe­ri­or­i­ty? Per­haps see­ing pho­tos of the era in col­or brings their sub­jects more imme­di­a­cy and vivid­ness, and you can see them by the hun­dreds at the Library of Congress’s online col­lec­tion of work com­mis­sioned by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment dur­ing the Depres­sion and World War II. Evans him­self may have thought col­or pho­tog­ra­phy “gar­ish” and “vul­gar,” Jor­dan G. Teich­er notes at Slate (though Evans began tak­ing his own col­or images in 1946). But con­tem­po­raries like Rus­sell Lee, Mar­i­on Post Wol­cott, Jack Delano, and John Vachon proved him wrong.

At the top of the post, see two pho­tos from Lee—of two home­stead­ers in New Mex­i­co (1940) and a shep­herd with his horse and dog in Mon­tana (1942). Beneath that, we have Wolcott’s strik­ing pho­to of a rur­al cab­in some­where “in South­ern U.S.,” cir­ca 1940. Fur­ther up, see Delano’s image of share­crop­pers chop­ping cot­ton in White Plains, Geor­gia (1941), which resem­bles the hero­ic fig­ures in a Diego Rivera mur­al. And just above we have John Vachon’s image of rur­al school chil­dren in San Augus­tine Coun­ty, Texas (1943). As we scan these faces and places, we might con­sid­er again Agee’s pref­ace: “The gov­ern­ing instrument—which is also one of the cen­ters of the subject—is indi­vid­ual, anti-author­i­ta­tive human con­scious­ness.” His instruc­tions invite us to both empa­thy for each per­son we see and to broad human sym­pa­thy for all of them.

Once the U.S. entered the war, many Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion pho­tog­ra­phers were reas­signed to make pro­pa­gan­da for the Office of War Infor­ma­tion (and a few, like Lange, also received com­mis­sions to pho­to­graph the Japan­ese Intern­ment Camps). The nature of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy began to change, large­ly reflect­ing small town Amer­i­can indus­tri­ous­ness and civic pride, rather than rur­al des­per­a­tion and strug­gle. Images like Fen­no Jacobs’ patri­ot­ic demon­stra­tion in Southing­ton Con­necti­cut (1942) above, are typ­i­cal. Quaint rows of hous­es and store­fronts dom­i­nate dur­ing the war years. We also find inter­est­ing images like that of the woman below work­ing on a “Vengeance” dive bomber in Ten­nessee, tak­en by Alfred T. Palmer in 1943. Aside from the dat­ed cloth­ing and machin­ery, her pho­to­graph seems as fresh and com­pelling as the day it first appeared.

“In col­or,” writes Emory University’s Jesse Karls­berg, “these images present them­selves as rel­e­vant to the present, rather than con­signed to the past. By dis­play­ing the prob­lems they depict—such as seg­re­ga­tion, pover­ty, and envi­ron­men­tal degradation—in a con­tem­po­rary form, the images imply that such prob­lems may con­tin­ue to be crit­i­cal today.” They are indeed crit­i­cal today. And may become even more so. And one hopes that writ­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers, and artists, though they will not do so under the aegis of New Deal agen­cies, can find ways to doc­u­ment what is hap­pen­ing as they did decades ago. Such work car­ries glob­al sig­nif­i­cance. And, as a recent Taschen book that col­lects New Deal pho­tog­ra­phy from 1935 to 1943 describes it, pho­tographs like those you see here “intro­duced Amer­i­ca to Amer­i­cans.” They also intro­duced Americans—who have been as divid­ed in the past as they are today—to each oth­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Found: Lost Great Depres­sion Pho­tos Cap­tur­ing Hard Times on Farms, and in Town

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Fran­cis Stewart’s Cen­sored Pho­tographs of a WWII Japan­ese Intern­ment Camp

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

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

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.