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New Deal Color

February 2024
1min read

A New Look at a Much-Photographed Era

So powerful and familiar are the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Steichen, and many others that today’s Americans can be forgiven for envisioning those turbulent times as a black-and-white world.

A street corner, possibly in Lincoln, Nebraska
 
john vachon2005_5_12
Jim Norris, a homesteader in Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940
 
russell lee2005_5_12a

So powerful and familiar are the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Steichen, and many others that today’s Americans can be forgiven for envisioning those turbulent times as a black-and-white world. Yet between 1939 and 1943 photographers for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information experimented warily with the recently introduced Kodachrome film, taking hundreds of color pictures of American life. For decades they were lost in government files, and as late as 1975 a critic asked, “Is there even one photograph of the Depression in color?” But starting in 1978, the FSA and OWI color shots began to be uncovered, and now the Library of Congress and Harry N. Abrams have published the first major collection, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943 (191 pages). Whether they show a shipyard worker, a farm family, or simply a pair of horses in a grassy field, these pictures, taken when photographers were just learning how to shoot in color, have a less artful quality than their familiar black-and-white work, which somehow makes the subjects seem even more alive and immediate to present-day viewers.

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