New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 18 May 16 to 22, 2012

The Depression in Color

Color Photographs from the WPA (1939-1943)
Ed Barnas
This girl in a glass house is putting finishing touches on the bombardier nose section of a B-17F navy bomber... by Alfred T. Palmer. Source:
Alfred T. Palmer, "This girl in a glass house is putting finishing touches on the bombardier nose section of a B-17F navy bomber..." 1942

Propaganda is a loaded term. But the fact of the matter is that documentary photographers, simply by their choice of subject and their approach to it, embed a viewpoint in their images. And that viewpoint, coupled with suitable text, may be used by multiple factions to “propagandize” their own diverse ends.

The photographers of the Farm Security Administration were charged with both documenting the need for the New Deal programs addressing the economic disruption of the Great Depression and heralding the successes of those programs as conditions improved (depicting “a return to normalcy”.) At least until it was time to show a nation confidently gearing up to war. In fact many of these FSA photographers followed FSA Chief, Roy Stryker, to the Office of War Information.

Black and white photography was the most cost-effective medium for mass communications in the 1930s. Many of us are familiar with the classic photos of the period (e.g., Rothstein’s dust bowl farmer and Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” both from 1936). In 1935 Kodachrome film was announced and documentation in color became a practical, but not necessarily an easy, option. The film was quite slow and expensive (exposure index of 6), required a complicated development process, and did not have the wide distribution of black and white. Moeover, long used to abstracting reality in shades of gray, photographers had to learn to see in color and to work within the limitations of the new film.

The selection of seventy-six early color images by FSA and OWI photographers on display at Carriage Trade offers a broad overview of this early color work taken from Government archives. Many familiar names grace the credits (Delano, Lee, Rothstein, Walcott, Vachon,) but also a number of less familiar ones as well (Collier, Collins, Hollem, Jacobs, Palmer) while the subject matter is familiar from their b&w work.

“Woman putting on her lipstick in a park with Union Station behind her, Washington, D.C.”  by Unknown. Source:
Unknown, "“Woman putting on her lipstick in a park with Union Station behind her, Washington, D.C.” " 1943

The exhibition opens with a bucolic view of a woman painting a landscape and closes with a young woman applying lipstick in front of Union Station. The intervening images run the gamut from rural to urban, with people at work and play. Many prints depict the positive results of New Deal programs – homesteaders with crops, distribution of surplus foods (one could serve as a model for a Norman Rockwell painting - Vachon’s photo of a doctor inoculating a boy). Others celebrate the subsequent industrialization of a war economy (including the inclusion of women in the workforce). There is an echo of Socialist Realism in these images, particularly those shot from a low angle. Given the limitations of the color process, many of these photos have a static look––even the one of a tank teetering over a ledge! Working slowly within those limitations, though, did produce some well-composed and effective formalist-style images (Palmer’s “girl in a glass house” and his menacing images of tank drivers).

Considering the time period (the 1930’s,) there are few color images of the effects of the Depression itself. To counterbalance the positive tone of the color work, the gallery has mounted four panels in the back room with b&w news images and eyewitness accounts of the bonus and hunger marches in 1932 and strikes in 1936 and 1937.

The photographs on display are modern prints, just a fraction over 6 x 8 in. in size, simply matted and framed. They were made from high-resolution scans of the original transparencies available as free downloads from the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photograph Online Catalog. This online catalog is well worth perusing and holds a host of interesting images (including scans of Ansel Adams’ wartime documentation of the Manzanar interment camp).

Color Photographs from the WPA (1939-1943)

Carriage Trade
62 Walker St.
Lower Manhattan - West         Map

212 343 2944

Thursday, March 22 to
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Hours: Thur-Sun, 2 to 7