When I think about the Great Depression, a pair of images comes to mind. I see the hard stare into space of the farmwoman in Dorothea Lange's photograph "Migrant Mother," a child slumped on each of her shoulders. And I see the figure of an Oklahoma farmer bent against the force of a dust storm in a vivid Arthur Rothstein photo, like a living Thomas Hart Benton painting.
I don't remember how or when I first saw these images, I've seen them so many times. They're a part of our collective national consciousness. And that didn't just happen—in fact, it was a federally funded project.
For about a decade starting in the mid 1930s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), under the direction of Roy Stryker, hired photographers such as Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn and Russell Lee to trudge all across the country documenting the rural and urban experience, the American landscape, and, toward the end of the administration, the effect of World War II on the home front. Then, Stryker disseminated chosen images through mass media, hoping to build national empathy for the poor. What we now think of as cultural treasures first appeared on the front pages of disposable morning papers and covers of popular magazines.
All told, FSA artists shot more than 160,000 photographs, translating the interwar years into faces and images that have persisted through subsequent decades. But up until now, the faces most of us have seen have been in black and white.
There are about 1,600 color images, shot on the earliest Kodachrome prototype film, in the FSA archive at the Library of Congress. Duke's Center for Documentary Studies is showing a freshly printed selection of 35 color images in Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America's Heartland through July 23. Photographer and SUNY-Buffalo professor Bruce Jackson organized the show and printed these 24 inch-by-30 inch images, which CDS will publicly auction on June 21. Some required extensive restoration and many of them have not been seen since the photographers took them between 1940 and 1943.
Kodachrome film wasn't commercially available at that time and wouldn't be for a few years more. Kodak developed color for motion pictures, introducing it to Hollywood in 1935. The company adapted the stock to 35mm still cameras and offered the film to Stryker to see if his photographers would field-test it for them.
However, despite the opportunity to use the innovative materials, plenty of the camera jockeys in the FSA corral wanted nothing to do with color. Some photographers saw black and white as more aesthetically pure. Others didn't want to use it because they couldn't develop it in the field; film had to be sent back to Kodak for processing in Rochester, N.Y.
Consequently, many of the photographers who did try the Kodachrome never saw their pictures, as the exposed film was sent straight from Kodak to Stryker in Washington. For the eight photographers in this exhibition, their film choice made these pictures experimental by default, regardless of where they pointed the camera.
Some, but not all, of these pictures show evidence that these photographers were thinking in color. Russell Lee and Jack Delano, who account for more than half of the images in the show, make compositional decisions that particularly pick up on color features in the frame. Delano, in several pictures taken inside a Chicago locomotive roundhouse, pushed the stock to see what gradations resulted in extremely low-light conditions. His portraits of workers in soot-black coveralls and caps, standing in front of a tunnel's pitch, look more like hovering faces. But in one roundhouse interior, Delano captures the light coming through the windows in the gentle curve of a wall, setting suspended soot aglow in a ghostly cloud that hovers above the dark, bullet noses of the parked engines. In front of one engine, a brilliant orange flare of fire juts out from a metal drum, radiating heat but not illuminating the trains.
The most eye-popping color comes from the sole Louise Rosskam image in the exhibition. A Washington, D.C., corner store's brick front is painted in brilliant, school-bus yellow. A solitary white girl, about 4 years old, sits on the stoop in a red dress. A black mother in a plum dress and blue jacket hesitates over the girl with possible concern, her younger son tugging at her hem. Racially, it's an uncertain, unreadable moment with subtleties that would perhaps be lost in a black-and-white image.
I found myself trying to imagine each image as if it were in black and white, to reverse-engineer my reaction to it. Would the man in the middle of Alfred T. Palmer's picture of an M-4 tank crew—his face and hands caked with a layer of dust—read as black, rather than white? Would the tiny church beneath a trestle in Andreas Feininger's picture of a strip-mined Utah hillside still be visible, to provide the pictorial perspective that shows the massive scale of the operation?
It's hard to think these pictures back into monochrome because it's startling how contemporary many of the images look just because they're in color. Unless there's a car in the frame, or a shop window that lists oranges for a penny each, it's easy to believe that many of these images were taken on a recent blue-highway drive through the Midwest. They look a little retro, but certainly not 70 years old.
This temporal disorientation is pretty disappointing, actually. Am I really that visually easy? Is my reptilian brain running things, telling me that old stuff is monochrome and new stuff is in color, even though I know these images were taken in the 1940s?
Few, if any, of these photographers were asking these questions. Life has always been in color. Instead, they were framing their shots, looking for the significant moment, doing their work. The fact that we are still hanging exhibitions of the FSA archive speaks to the enduring historical and artistic power of this huge civic art project, regardless of the film stock.
As it happens, FSA images are also in several other Triangle art spaces right now. An exhibition on the functions and power of costume that just opened at N.C. State's Gregg Museum [see Barkcloth, Bras & Bulletproof Cotton] includes black-and-white photographs by Lange, Shahn and Evans to illustrate urban fashions of the times. UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Museum recently opened the dazzling Spectacular of Vernacular show [see "The ordinary becomes exceptional in The Spectacular of Vernacular at the Ackland"] featuring William E. Jones' 2009 structuralist film Killed, for which the artist assembled images that Stryker rejected by punching a hole through the negative. Challenging the viewer to extrapolate the basis for Stryker's judgment, unworthy city storefronts and farm landscapes flicker past at a frantic, optically unpleasant rate, while the black circle of the kill hole remains centered on the screen.
Contemporary artists like Jones see the FSA archive as a treasure trove. Debbie Grossman actually scooped CDS on the color images, exhibiting several altered Lee Kodachromes in her My Pie Town series as part of the group show "Blackbird Whistling—or Just After: Seven Women Reflect on Dystopia" that Jeff Whetstone curated at the Durham Arts Council in late 2010. Grossman digitally changed men's faces to make them all female, re-imagining Pie Town, N.M., as an exclusively female community. The original of one of Grossman's altered Lee photos is in the CDS show—a homesteader couple standing like Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting, but with only a cloudy sky and flat horizon line behind them.
As curators and organizations like Jackson and CDS continue to exhibit new facets of the archive, and as artists like Jones and Grossman continue to repurpose it, new layers and contours arise in the national consciousness that these images mean so much to. As you walk through this exhibition, know that you are adding your own wrinkle as well.
Correction (Feb. 1, 2012): This story originally referred incorrectly to film negatives. While black and white photography and some color stock employ a negative process, the Kodachrome film discussed in this story produces a positive image.