Presidential Material

Of the many photographs taken of Theodore Roosevelt reading, this one is perhaps the most beguiling.  It was taken in 1905, when the president was on vacation.  He used his time off to go bear hunting in Colorado on horseback with a small group of friends.  While there, he stayed in the “West Divide Creek ranch house,” a simple log cabin.

Roosevelt was famous as a man of action. Few presidents had his love of ‘roughing it,’ though many were endowed, as he was, with physical courage and military zeal.  Roosevelt’s love of adventure sprang from wanting to prove himself by facing elemental challenges.  This passion fueled his love of sport (such as boxing) as well as his famous excursion toward the end of his life to find the headwaters of the Amazon.  As president, he was resolute, tackling the prickliest dilemmas in a forthright, all-out way.

At the same time, Roosevelt’s effectiveness derived from his great intellectual capacities.  He was a  voracious reader, devouring information and knowledge like a large fish feeding with mouth open wide.  He read and wrote compulsively, regardless of his official duties.  Being intellectual was intrinsic to his identity.  Knowledge clarified the problems he confronted, undergirding Roosevelt’s confidence and leadership skills.

Photographers accompanied Roosevelt on his Wild West vacation.  This allowed the public to see another side of the president, barren of conventional symbols of prestige.  Yet beneath the ratty clothes and ridiculous hat, Roosevelt’s big-heartedness, joie de vivre, and seriousness remained much in evidence.  The dog on his lap joined the Roosevelt household, when Teddy took him back to the White House to stay.   

Image: from this source.

Truman Capote

Several beautiful portraits by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed many of the 20th century’s most illustrious intellectuals and artists, have recently shown up on the Library of Congress’s Flickr feed.  Among them is this particularly surreal composition, featuring a young Truman Capote, photographed against a dreamlike marbled background with puppets.  At just 24 years of age, Capote was already attaining the status of a celebrity with the publication of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Image: from this source

Two Gilded Age Gentlemen

Two dressed-up men smile into the camera on a spring day. One holds a Kodak camera.
Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times.  The year is 1889.  They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox.  These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on.  They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth.  Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.

Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter.  Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’  This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.

The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn.  The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty.  He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’

Image from this source.

A Glimpse of the Young Newspaperman Horace Greeley

Horace-Greeley with the staff of his New York Tribune, prior to 1860 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Most surviving likeness of the New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley (1811-1872) are either caricatures or photographs taken in his later years.  In political cartoons, he is often depicted wearing tiny spectacles, a top hat, and a voluminous overcoat with bulging pockets (one of his sartorial trademarks).  In the post-Civil War photographs, Greeley is plump and sports a fringe of white beard, a little like Santa Claus but with beady eyes. Continue reading

Exploring Farm Security Photography

A worn middle-aged woman holding a box of strawberries she has picked.
Since the Library of Congress began digitizing the photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), it has blazed a path back into the US of the 1930s and 40s.  The 170,000 photographs that make up the collection surprise and complexify by preserving the look of everyday life back in the era of the Great Depression and WWII.

Folks at Yale have unveiled an interface to the FSA photographs called Photogrammar that facilitates browsing the massive collection by county, using a map that arranges the entire archive by locale.  Another map allows users to find all images created by a particular FSA photographer, whose shoots show up as dots plastered across the US.  (One can follow John Vachon’s photographic odyssey from Chicago across the Southwest to southern California, for instance.)  Every photograph in the interface links back to an original Library of Congress record.

The photograph above is one of many documenting the lives of migrant workers in Michigan’s Berrien County in 1940.  Who knew that placid Berrien County (now a Chicago-area vacationland) had its own Grapes of Wrath story?  That, in the forties, poor families displaced by the Depression and Dust Bowl migrated up to those parts to pick the fruits and berries that even now are a mainstay of the state’s agriculture?  Some 190 photographs by John Vachon record the heart-breaking conditions that awaited those who, after losing their own farmland, had to resort to working as seasonal day laborers.  Pictures from the series document the labor of parents and their small children in the fields, as well as their ‘home life’ in the tents and trucks that sufficed as their dwellings.

The FSA photographs document both the nation’s suffering and its dynamism and vitality, furnishing an often startling yardstick of change in the ensuing 75 years’ time.

Image: John Vachon’s “Migrant berry picker from Arkansas,
Berrien County, Michigan” (July 1940),
from the Library of Congress via Photogrammar.
Click here to visit the Photogrammar site.