NPR Story
5:07 am
Tue September 2, 2014

Depression-Era Photos Make A Mark In American Photography

Originally published on Tue September 2, 2014 12:19 pm

A Yale University project has organized and mapped photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information from 1935 to 1946. Now there's an online tool to explore them.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

During the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. government set out to document the lives of regular Americans during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the Second World War. The Library of Congress houses images from that project, which was carried out by the former Farm Security Administration. Now there is a new online tool to explore those images. NPR's Leah Scarpelli has more.

LEAH SCARPELLI, BYLINE: It was part of the New Deal. The government of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt assigned some of the country's best photographers to document ordinary Americans struggling to survive. The point was simple.

LAURA WEXLER: To show the taxpayers of the United States that this was the deserving poor - people just like you and me - just people down on their luck.

SCARPELLI: Laura Wexler is a professor of American studies at Yale University. She says that what began essentially as government propaganda ended up becoming something more.

WEXLER: A wide and beloved portrait of the United States during the Depression and into the first years of World War II.

SCARPELLI: Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others traveled the country, making what are now some of what are now some of the most memorable images in American photography.

WEXLER: People know them. I could say, "The Migrant Mother" or "The Farm In The Sandstorm"...

SCARPELLI: In all, about a hundred-and-70-thousand photographs were made as part of the FSA project. They're now at the Library of Congress, and they were digitized in the 1990s, making it possible for anyone to search the archive online. Here's where one of Professor Wexler's students, Lauren Tilton, enters the picture. Tilton was researching a paper, and she went to the archive.

LAURA TILTON: And it was difficult to sort of manage my way through it.

SCARPELLI: Tilton found that the images were organized by an old system that felt kind of inaccessible and tough to just browse. So she started thinking.

TILTON: Wow, what if you could go by place into this collection? What if there were other ways we could organize these to create new ways of access and entry into the collection?

SCARPELLI: Tilton and Professor Wexler formed a team at Yale to design Photogrammar, a website that lets users to search these historic photos more intuitively, like by specific photographer, date range or location or through an interactive map of the United States. Wexler says, they've watched user do one search in particular.

WEXLER: Well, the first thing anybody does with this map is go straight to where they're from, and then move out in intuitive circles after that. You know, it's an associative and visual kind of searching.

SCARPELLI: Besides receiving interest from libraries and researchers, Wexler is excited about all the ways people can engage in the FSA photo collection.

WEXLER: A dancer named Jennifer Newman found an ancestor of hers in the file and has created a dance about the finding and exploration of that photograph - an ancestor she never met, but had only heard about.

SCARPELLI: In the future, Wexler and Tilton hope users will not only learn things from Photogrammar, but actually contribute to it.

WEXLER: We're hoping that people will be able to go and add information to the map and say, oh, I remember that town. And I remember what was here before that farm, and I remember when the people came. We've built a tool for the public, and now we want to see what the public can do with it.

SCARPELLI: Leah Scarpelli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.