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Nov 26, 2005

Like Yesterday


Women Workers
(click images for larger version)

The Library of Congress has recently launched an exhibition of little known color photographs produced by the government between 1939 and 1943.  Taken for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, they chronicle scenes from the end of the Depression through the ramp up to WW II.  For people old enough to have lived through these years, these images might be nostalgic.  For those of us who have come to know this era through an austere monochrome, however, the effect can be a little strange.

Because The BAG's interest is as much political as visual, I have a number of questions about this collection, and these examples in particular.  The first image shows African Americans chopping cotton in Georgia in 1941, and the second depicts women railway workers in Iowa in 1943.

Doesn't the presence of color tempt us to read these pictures in more "contemporary" terms? If so, aren't these images that much more difficult to relate to considering the intermediary impact of the civil rights and women's rights movements?

Given the way many Americans have ceded history to Hollywood, is it hard to get past the idea (especially with the saturated colors of the kodachrome) that these are just movie stills with actors in period dress?

It is well known that the FSA images taken by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Walker Evans were created for propaganda purposes. The shots were intended to educate the country about farming problems, promote The New Deal, emphasize the ability of American's to overcome adversity, and encourage the war effort. Given that these images were widely distributed in the media, is the tendency of the government to frame a story line really that much different today than it was sixty years ago?

Bound for Glory: America in Color exhibition website here.

(image 1: Jack Delano. White Plains, Greene County, Georgia. June 1941. FSA/OWI Collection. Library of Congress. image 2: Jack Delano. Clinton, Iowa. April 1943. FSA/OWI Collection. Library of Congress.)


re: your article about "bound for Glory" pictures caught my attention and leads me to ask the following- the title has been used for a book about Woody Guthrie as well as a movie about Woodys' life. Thus- the question- isn't there some kind of protection that would protect titles from simply being taken and used in any way that is deemed potentially profitable by the user?
OR- am I just missing the boat?

billjpa: An author can copyright a book but not its title. for more info.

I agree with the interpretation that these photos seem more immediate--but falsely so--in color. They could very well be faked for all I know. It might be difficult to find a working camera from the period, but all one would need is that camera, color slide film which is easy enough to find, and some people and costumes. Old photos in general seem to have a distinct quality about them. Most photographers these days heavily use wide-angle lenses to gather as much contextual information as possible. These photos were shot with normal-length lenses and with what I'm guessing were medium-format cameras, although honestly I can't be sure. I don't know if 35mm format cameras were widely used back then. Perhaps this is a good example of the stereotypes we think of when looking at old photos. I see "old photo" and immediately think of a photographer lugging around a medium or large-format view camera and tripod through the dust.

It is even more difficult to relate to these pictures in terms of their original context. People now have unprecedented access to images and information, via newspapers, the internet, and television. Back then, perhaps people were swayed more easily by government propaganda because they had less access to different images. What stories or issues accompanied these photos, and how would one of those farmers or railroad workers read them? Perhaps they would read them the same as people today "read" the information they get from any number of outlets. I could be giving contemporary humans too much credit: after all, how many people watch FOX news and believe every word of it? How many people are completely apathetic, too? Perhaps the people back then felt the same as we do now about information released by the government.

What I see from these photos, though, is a more straightforward approach to news images. The images I see nowadays are no doubt compelling but also more personal, it seems. The normal-length lens and the distance from the subject to the photographer give me a real sense of being an observer more than a participant. Today, photographers use wide-angle lenses to be intimate with their subjects. I don't think this is good or bad, just a difference in equipment and style. I apologize for blathering on about very little.

Adding to Victor's comments: titles (and characters) can be trademarked.

Of course, to me the strongest statement the visuals make is the segregation. Then, the second thing I noticed was the inappropriateness of the farm clothes? The women are wearing bright colors with one of them wearing a hat that is too small to be practical.

Victor F --

They could very well be faked for all I know. It might be difficult to find a working camera from the period, but all one would need is that camera, color slide film which is easy enough to find, and some people and costumes.

This underestimates the difficulty of staging a successful forgery. In addition to time appropriate media and costume the actors need a convincing and appropriate reason to be where they are.

The Iowa picture shows a group of women, all of a certain age, at their lunch break. (The wall clock implies a midday meal.) Their 1943 husbands and sons are in England (overpaid, oversexed, and over here) or the South Pacific. Their daughters are with their grandchildren. They are making the trains run on time.

Even after washing up for lunch, there is plenty of the special, impossible to scrub off, mechanical grime that tags the working mechanic.

Guy Davenport's essay The Geography of the Imagination includes a close analysis of the Iowa couple in Grant Wood's American Gothic. Were he alive I suspect Prof Davenport would find plenty of evidence tying this picture to Iowa and to 1943.

right. I don't doubt these are authentic images, it was just a tangent I explored.

Is it meaningful that these images (of a time when Americans were as united as they have ever been, when America nearly went socialist, but were "saved from disaster" by world war) would come out now that we as a nation are tearing ourselves apart, perhaps on the verge of another world war, dismantling the social safety net?
As an aside from the visual for a moment, I now see the Great Society of the 1960s as much closer to the New Deal of the 1930s both in time and in ideology than to our own time. The New Deal was facing backlash by 1939, and the Great Society was dead after the madness of 1968 and the onset of backlash. While only 30 years separated those two eras, we are now closer to 40 years since the Great Society, and look how far we have come from that.

Photo retouching and colorizing is not my expertise, but I think these photos have been tinkered with. When enlarged, both photos look technically peculiar.

In the photo of the women railway workers, everything around them is unnaturally colorless (except for the clock). I suppose it's possible that the bench could have been gray, the pine and brick walls could have been gray, the window could have been gray, the table could have been black, even the calendar could have been gray, but I'm doubtful. I think the original color faded (if it ever was a color photograph) and was punched up or entirely recolored, which is why the colors pop now. The picture does look like a movie still — from a Ted Turner colorized movie.

The sharecroppers look like they are superimposed onto the background, giving them a movie-still look also. When enlarged, the area of focus appears to be quite narrow before it begins to blur (the focus is best seen on the ground the people are "chopping"). Yet the bodies are pretty sharp from head to toe (except for hoeing movements). The super sharp outline of the heads against the sky is what seems most unlikely to me, given the shallow depth of field. The sky looks cloudy yet the people look like they are in bright sunlight. If it is so bright out, the aperture would be smaller, making the depth of field deeper. So why is the depth of field so shallow? Also, the greater the distance from the subject, the deeper the depth of field. Finally, reproductions of color slides lose, rather than gain, sharpness with each generation of reproduction, so how did this image retain any sharpness?

And why would the LOC alter these images? To make them "better"?

BTW, titles are not normally trademarked either. For anyone who gives a crap, read on from

b. Titles. Titles, while not protected under copyright law, are sometimes protected under trademark and unfair competition laws. However, one-shot titles, no matter how clever they are, are not automatically entitled to trademark protection. To be protected, titles must achieve "secondary meaning." Secondary meaning is akin to the commercial magnetism of a title. As a rule, to be protected, titles must be "broadly known." Series titles, unlike one-shot titles, make good trademarks candidates. In addition, a title in one medium, will be protected in another.

So Star Wars can be trademarked because of its "commercial magnetism," but Bound for Glory not so much.

from my limited experience working with larger-format cameras and color slide film, the depth of field would be narrow even in broad daylight if the photographer was using a "slower" ISO film. I think the "slowest" slide film I used was 100 ISO, but I know Kodachrome came at ISOs as "slow" as 25. A slower ISO means the colors reproduce better and will appear more saturated as they do in these photos. It is a general rule of thumb that photographers lacking a light meter can gauge exposure in broad daylight by selecting a shutter speed closest to the film's ISO at an f-stop of f/16; one exposure for this picture could be 1/25th of a second at f/16, assuming the photographer used 25 ISO film. That would be much too slow to ensure detail in the subjects. He could have stopped down his shutter speed to, say, 1/125 of a second and would have had to open his aperture to f/8. In larger-format cameras, though, f-stops can be as small as f/64, which means an f-stop of f/8 would not do much to extend the depth-of-field in any situation. A normal or long-length lens would also decrease depth of field and give the impression the farmers are flatly superimposed between a blurry foreground and background.

As to the sharpness after reproduction, it wouldn't surprise me if they touched up the photos using Photoshop or a similar program. Using "unsharp mask" is a common procedure for photo editing these days and is not considered wholly unethical, unless doing so would completely alter the integrity of the image.

Since the Library of Congress is exhibiting the images expressly because they are in color and is offering the images and catalog for sale, I do think they are ethically obligated to be clear about altering any images, especially if they are going to make a point about vibrancy and vividness. They acknowledge the images are digital, but go on to say the exhibition "reveals a surprisingly vibrant world" and that "the color images . . . provide a remarkable opportunity to study the early use of color film" and further urge us to "compare monochrome and color images taken on the same shoot, or to identify particular landscapes or subjects that caught the photographer's eye in such a way that he or she chose to use the medium of color to best represent their essence." How exactly do we compare or study a digitized photograph and a monochrome image? I think it's dishonest and deceptive to present these images this way, especially without a disclaimer (at least I haven't found one yet).

This color photograph attributed to Jack Delano shows what the color really looks like after 60+ years, a fairly dramatic difference:

i must admit I did not thoroughly read the info on the gallery website; merely browsed the photos. I agree, these photos seem to be digitally restored instead of originals, and if it isn't overtly stated that they are restored it should be. Restoring an image to its original quality without informing a viewer seems negligent.

As both a photographer who uses (predominantly) B&W film and someone old enough to remember this era, I think it possible that anyone born after WWII may not realize how provincial we all were. Our images were the color of real life and the B&W of Life magazine.

When I look at the photo of the women at the lunch table, I see things not in today's photos, even movies. No makeup on the women; the Thermos and coffee can (1 lb, not 12 oz.), the bandanas covering hair. Even the dress.....strictly business, no frills. And the wax paper! [I've seen photos in a certain "nostalgia" magazine that were modern reconstructs, and you can spot them right away. There is just an aura of unreality about them.] The women at the lunch table seems very authentic to me. The women seem unselfconscious, unposed. Only the open seat(s) in the foreground and the orange might indicate the presence of a photographer looking for the suitable depiction of women on the 'home front'. In the '40's, oranges were not that common outside of the growing areas. I would imagine in Iowa, as well as in New York, an orange would have been a welcome sight, especially in winter. That one item, and it's prominent placement, untouched, indicates to me an authenticity. Incidentally, that coffee can reminds me of what my grandmother used to collect cooking fat in which was then taken to the butcher to be collected and turned into ammunition.

As for the farm-worker photo, and speaking only from my POV, I would have looked at that pretty much as if it were in another country. Of course, I was young, and unaware of how adults felt about such things. I grew up in San Diego, and did not know until I was in high school that the Japanese were taken to camps in this country. Such were the secrets adults kept from us. My guess is it was more posed than the other photo. All the rakes (?) are synchronized, but two of the women in the background hardly seem dressed for farm work. Were they all pulled out by the (white?) photographer because he needed such a photo? Somehow this one is more troubling because the motive of photographer/client is less accessible. No war effort yet, so depression recovery?

VictorF makes a good point about the speed of the film available then. Kodak ASA25 was available during the war years, as I remember, but was expensive. My family shot B&W till after the war. Commercial photographers (I seem to remember seeing in pictures of them) frequently used large-format cameras. It would not have been out of the question for one on a government assignment to use such a camera. There is a band across the middle of the farm workers that is in focus, but any movement within is blurry, which would indicate, I think, a low ASA film. Also, the fading would depend on exposure to light and some colors fade faster than others. If kept in a sealed drawer under ideal conditions, fading can be minimized. However, that orange does look like it's 'punched' a bit.

cactus , I was born in the middle of the depression, my world was always observed in black and white, your take on the racking positions and the outfits extinguished my initial response eg foreigners from a National Geographic magazine. With the exception of one woman the other ladies were surely dressed for church, going to town.. is the little guy dressed for town or being baby sat at work, is he an unwelcomed intrusion or is there some other intention for his partial inclusion ?
Looking over family photos from the thirties the first coloured one was dated 1952. So I don't know if that old accordion type Kodak camera was replaced or colored film became cheaper. I recall receiving an orange (something really really special) in my stocking from Santa Clause in 1941. It was the first object I noticed following a cursory look of the ladies at lunch.
Many years later in 1962 I recalled the adult authorized(+ the unauthorized )versions when a pictorial & historical Depression era journey was relived through; 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' -James Agee' & Walker Evans. Imprinted by this book, black and white photography has remained a more powerful medium than colour for me.
I noticed that ' Bound for Glory' exhibit contained none of W.E's works probably because they were shot in 1936 and not on color ?
For those interested in collaboration of writer and photographer there is a fascinating article;
The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us... Bruce Jackson -
The Seduction of James Agee: Meghan Daum on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is an interesting sojourn with w&p.
coal train I share your prognostication. A teacher using the Bound For Glory kit might include LUNPFM as a literary companion, perhaps students may discover some of the similarities of the past and present which you refer to.

Either we're all cityfolk here at BnN or we just don't get out enough. "Sharecropping" still exists in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world), although it might be called different names. The all-knowing Wikipedia gives some examples ( It mentions Montana and the Corn Belt states (which comprise 12 Midwest states, according to the Wikipedia gods). Though I grew up in the Midwest, I never saw a sharecropper to my knowledge; however, driving through North Carolina about 12 years ago, I saw a scene almost identical to the one of the black sharecroppers above! The scene included a tiny house with a tiny yellow dirt field for a front yard, and a group of blacks working the soil manually with hoes. As a Yankee, I couldn't believe my eyes and nearly drove off the road. But I knew immediately what I was witnessing, because it looked exactly like what I'd been taught (and assumed no longer existed).

I don't think Yesterday ever really went away in this country.

I'm from Georgia, and remember seeing cotton workers in the fields. (By the way, not every one who worked in the fields was a sharecropper. Many were simply workers.)

I would agree with jt from BC - those sharecroppers (especially the ladies) look very dressed up, almost like they were going to church. Notice the kid at the far left - he looks dressed up too. And I don't see any dust (common in late summer / fall in Georgia). That field looks dry - there should be dust. The color is about right, though.

Oh, and who labeled this "chopping cotton." IIRC that's something you do when the cotton is growing (it's basically weeding). I don't know what these people are doing - it's obviously a plowed field, so they aren't plowing it by hand. They aren't gleaning peanuts or sweet potatoes (no sacks). Maybe they are breaking up roots and clods from the last crop. None of those hoes seem to have any dirt falling from them, though.

So I would suspect that this was a totally staged picture. These people may have been on their way to town or to Church, or just sitting on their porch, and the photographer asked to take a picture of them in the fields.

Marshall: Thanks for commenting. I'd wondered whether this was "chopping cotton" because there doesn't appear to be any cotton plants to "chop" between.

So if the photographer set up the shot and the esteemed Library of Congress tidied it up 64 years later to make it more visually appealing, this might well be a "pretty" (read: revisionist) version of the sharecropper's life in 1941. Great. That's just what we needed.

Upon further reflection, and after reading comments above, esp. Marshall's,I think both shots were probably "staged" in the sense that the photographer was sent out to get certain shots, probably for propaganda. Women at lunch is fairly straightforward, with the aforementioned 'adjustments.'

As for the Georga farm, I can see a scenario where the photographer is sent to take that photo; he/she approaches the farm workers with his idea and they, being aware this is A PHOTOGRAPH, want to look their best. I don't imagine many farm workers of any race in those days had a camera handy. My entire family (on the west coast) only had one camera for all of us until into the '40's. Anyway, that might explain the incongruous dress and the hoes.

I seem to remember that the story about photographers like Lange and Evans, they were sent out on the general assignment of photographing the dust bowl farms and the plight of the farmers' families. So perhaps the difference is one of a specific request to a photographer on one hand, and a general assignment for a group of photographers who may have been part of a WPA project for artists.

Guess I should research that someday.....

Jack Delano, who took both these pictures, was a fascinating man and sensitive photographer, along with being a social activist. The photo of the farmworkers was likely taken while he was living in Greene County, Ga., with his wife, Irene. Jack Delano's photos of Greene County were used to illustrate a book about race and rural poverty in the South, Tenants of the Almighty, by sociologist Frank Raper. I've used his black and white pictures of a segregated fair, available at the Library of Congress web site, in a desktop publishing class I teach. After a trip to shoot pictures in Puerto Rico, Delano moved there, and he chronicled change in Puerto Rico through his photography.

As for the clothing in the Greene County picture, I don't find it odd. I wonder if the women weren't wearing hand-me-downs from white people. The man's overalls certainly look authentic. So does the child in the lower left corner. I have lived in Athens, just north of Greene County, most of my life. While the soil in the picture isn't the characteristic North Georgia red clay, it's quite possible that the color is correct. We do have different colors of soil around here. The pines in the distance look quite familiar. I believe this must have been taken in the spring. Chopping cotton, as I understand it, was simply weeding. These people look like they're breaking up the soil.

One other reason for the relative scarcity of color photographs during this time was the inability of newspapers and magazines—the most widespread visual media before television—to print in color. Black and white photographs would naturally appeal to editors.

Jack Delano's color photograph of women workers eating lunch is similar to his B&W shot of (male) Workers having dinner at their boardinghouse, 1941 in Childersburg, Alabama (more photos here.)

Here is a portrait of Jack Delano holding a Graflex Speed Graphic camera, which exposed single sheets of large format 4"x5" film. Exposure settings were completely manual, and being the times before small electronic flash units, flashbulbs were used for additional illumination (you can clearly see their daylight fill effect in the Childersburg outdoor porch shots).

The photos weren't faked (Photoshop has only made us more suspicious today), although they may have been set up for composition. In a lengthy 1965 interview with Richard Doud of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, Delano explains what it was like photographing for the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker:

RICHARD DOUD: Would you care to go into some of this business about how you prepared for your field assignments? We get these stories about how Roy would give you all sorts of books to read, and give you personal lectures and shooting scripts, and all that sort of thing. How much of that is correct?

JACK DELANO: Well, that's basically correct. I think that's quite true. Roy gave you the feeling that he knew more about everything that you did and, above all, ha knew more about America that you did, by far. And that's one of the things that I loved about Roy and one of the things I got most from him was a feeling about the United States, about America. This enthusiasm and love for the detail and the deeper meaning of everything American was something that he must have transmitted to everybody. He certainly did to me. In preparing for an assignment he not only gave us books to read, and all kinds of other things, but would talk and talk and talk in great detail about what you will find up there, and what you must look for, and there is a certain drugstore on such and such a corner which has a certain thing in the window which you must be sure to find, and so on. And he almost always would end up in saying, "But, of course, if you don't find any of these things, you do what you want to anyway." This is the way it always ended and frequently, after lengthy and detailed instructions and shooting scripts that Roy would develop, if you got up there and found that there was something else that interested you, and something else that you felt was more important and more pertinent, you just went ahead and did it; and wrote to Roy and said, "Look, Roy, it isn't like you said." This was perfectly okay with him because he wasn't imposing his ideas on you; he was trying to get you stimulated enough so that you would find out what was really there.

RICHARD DOUD: There was no dictation, I mean in this whole business he was simply trying to get you started. He didn't care if you went off on your own and took a different slant?

JACK DELANO: Not at all. On the contrary, he was trying to stimulate you to do that. In some of his letters, which we will show you -- I'm sure we'll find them this afternoon -- he would write in longhand these long letters in which he would work out for you a complete shooting script on what you should be looking for in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania or in Aroostook County, Maine. He would write in great detail about potato-picking, and what kind of shoes do they wear, and what kind of gloves do they wear, and where do they eat and sleep, and do all sorts of other things. But this was primarily a guide for you to open your eyes and be looking for these things. He wouldn't tell you what to photograph at all, ever.

RICHARD DOUD: That's very interesting that he would have that sort of faith in you that you could sort of take over.

JACK DELANO: Yes, he would. He always did this, and he expected the photographers to be much more than picture snappers as a result of this. He expected you to be studying and find out about all kinds of these things. As a matter of fact, we often talked about this in terms of the caption material that we would send. We would write brief captions for the pictures, yes, but he always wanted long letters in addition and extra material, background material, about what was going on, and what was this all about; partly for the files so that it would be available for writers who were using the pictures, and partly for himself because he wanted to know.

Great advice for any photographer, any day: know your subject.

Jack Delano died in 1997 at the age of 83.

Thanks for those links. Or maybe not... since I just spent way too much time browsing through those old photos when I should have been doing something else! Now I have to get off the computer before I spend more time trying to figure out why all these workers were coming to this town of Childersburg, Alabama (and whether there were actually no black people in the area)...

I'm 51; both images are 'contemporary' for me in that we have migrant workers who still hoe potatoes, green beans, peas, sugar beets, & other crops. I don't know about sharecropping here in the Northwest which doesn't mean it does or does not exist; I just don't know if it does.

As for the picture of the women at work, that scene is akin to what I experienced when working during the summers at Bird's Eye frozen food plant. My mother worked in that plant until the late '80's when it changed corporate hands.

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