The Library of Congress archives held a hidden treasure for over thirty years. The vast collection of photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information between 1935 and 1943 were filed away, loosely cataloged, and it was not until 1978 that a historian discovered 700 color transparencies among the 160,000 black-and-white photos. Those 700, along with the 965 images from 1942 and '43 when the OWI ran the project, are a startling legacy. Startling--because there are so few color images of the Depression years that we often overlook the vibrancy and lightheartedness of the time. As author Paul Hendrickson writes in the Foreword, these luminous photographs "...can only add to, not detract from, the black-and-white Movietone reel that's long been running in your head."
Kodachrome film was first marketed in 35mm rolls in 1936; by the time of the earliest known FSA color shots in 1939, the earlier problems with stability of the yellow dyes had been resolved. The 175 pictures in BOUND FOR GLORY: AMERICA IN COLOR 1939-43 are amazingly color-true and crisp. The majority were developed onto 2 x 2 Kodachrome slides in cardboard mountings.
The images pull you in. How to describe them? School children studying a world globe in Texas; an aproned craftswoman displaying her quilt of the States; a homesteader couple against a turbulent sky (reproduced on the dust cover); mines, ranches, cotton pickers, Main Streets; a farm in the green mountains of Vermont; a stark geometric scrap and salvage yard; parades, coal docks in Pennsylvania, steel furnaces in Detroit, a steel mill in Utah with snowy mountains seemingly an arm's reach away in the background; a guitar-playing girl in Oklahoma with a flowered hat and solemn expression; a series of real-life Rosie-the-Riveters from Texas to California. There are many photographs from fairs: barefooted families eating barbeque from paper plates; girls from the girly show on a break; children gaping at the wonders of the fair; and the placard quoted in my subject line but not, unfortunately, the bear itself.
Of course I looked for my own state, and found a starch factory deep in the potato country of Northern Maine. And an unexpected pleasure: two street corners in Brockton, Massachusetts that I recognized from my years living in that city four decades later.
A particular pleasure is the series from Pie Town, New Mexico. Photographer Russell Lee went there to take pictures--well, who wouldn't go there, having learned that a place called Pie Town exists?
This collection of color photographs is a legacy too little known by those of us who own it. Browse the FSA-OWI archives on line and by all means get your hands on this gorgeously presented treasure trove. BOUND FOR GLORY--highly recommended.
Linda Bulger, 2009