Full Color Depression
The photographs taken by the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) team—composed of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and others, under the leadership of Roy Emerson Stryker—include some of the most recognizable images of rural and small-town America during the Great Depression. Beginning in 1935, the team captured at least 175,000 black-and-white images of cities, towns, and the countryside throughout America’s heartland. Some of the photographers also captured lesser-known color images using a film called Kodachrome. No one knows exactly how many frames they shot for the FSA in color, but only 1,615 survive. Until recently, most of these images had not been seen since they were initially processed by Kodak’s lab in Rochester well over half a century ago.
Kodachrome, the most stable fine-grain color film ever made, was introduced as 16mm movie film in 1935. During the following three years, it became available in canisters for 35mm cameras and in sheets for medium- and large-format cameras. By late 1939, the processing was as good as the film, and some of Stryker’s FSA photographers began experimenting with it. They continued their work after the FSA project was absorbed by the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942, through its dissolution in 1944. Unlike black-and-white film, which could easily be developed while on the road, Kodachrome required a more complex process and was sent to Kodak to be developed. As a result, the photographers often did not see their final images. Some of the FSA Kodachromes were rediscovered in 1978 in the Library of Congress Archives by Sally Stein, who was researching photography from the 1930s for her dissertation. Today, all of the project’s surviving color images are available as high-resolution scans from the Library of Congress.
For this exhibition, Bruce Jackson, a photographer himself, selected, printed, and, in some instances, restored a representative group of images; some of the prints required more than a thousand separate corrections. This selection of images ranges from the first tentative explorations of Marion Post Wolcott—who used the film in the same way she used black-and-white film—to the more complex color work of Russell Lee and Jack Delano—who were beginning to understand that color photography was different than monochrome—and the hyped advertising-style propaganda images of Arthur T. Palmer from the early years of World War II. Color photography would not find a firm base in the art world until an exhibition of works by William Eggleston was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, but as the images in this exhibition demonstrate, the path was marked decades before by Stryker’s FSA team. Their assignment was to document what America looked like during and at the end of the Great Depression; in the process, they discovered new ways the camera lens could see and represent the world.
This exhibition is organized by Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of English and James Agee Professor of American Culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The original color transparencies are in the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection at the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsac/.