President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car. The year is 1903. The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.
By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody. Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy. The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.
Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys. Who was the photographer? Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time? Did he even consent? His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.
A store with live fish for sale, vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, July 1940. FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
In 1940, a federal bureau called the Farm Security Administration (FSA) dispatched photographers to various parts of the States to document the American people’s condition. That the federal government would launch such an impolitic initiative is unthinkable today. The pictures are uncomfortably realistic, many outright grim, the country being still on the ropes after that period of economic woe we proudly refer to as the ‘Great’ Depression. That those in power cared enough to visit the nation’s suffering smacks of an unwavering democratic purpose unfamiliar now.
Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.
The corpus of FSA photography stands as a magnificent portrait of America: penetrating and stark, troubling yet thrilling, capturing the country’s natural richness, its varied peoples and economy, its dilemmas and opportunities.
Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia, May 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.
For the most part, rural places and workers star in the FSA’s study of the mid-20th-century ‘political economy.’ A band of FSA photographers, who included Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, fanned out across the South and West, documenting rural small-town folk as they went about their daily activities.
Dugout house of Faro Caudill, homesteader, with Mt. Allegro in the background, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. FSA photograph by Russell Lee.
Indeed, many of the photographs—some shot with up-to-the-minute color slide film—show people living in conditions little changed since the previous century.
Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass., January 1941. FSA photograph by Jack Delano.
Besides documenting church picnics, horse auctions, and hard-scrabble farming, FSA photographers visited urban and industrial regions, where they more often shot in black and white. As the project went on, its output began to show the stimulus of World War II, when the demand for goods in war-torn Europe and the growth of war-related industries dramatically expanded the economy and work opportunities for many Americans.
Houses and factories. Unidentified photographer. From the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress.
The FSA project represented an interesting experiment on the government’s part, to use an expressive medium (photography) to supplement the ‘facts’ expressed through social science. Seventy-five years on, the FSA photos allow us to behold the ordinary American circa 1940, in a form more eloquent than statistics or sociology. Moreover, the characteristic themes of the photographs, including the unequal effects of modernization, Americans’ changing relationship with nature and the land, and economic vulnerability, are problems we continue to grapple with today.
All images from the Library of Congress. Click on an image to go to its source.
Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city! I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night. The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride. The face of Chicago is deceptive, having only grown more beautiful with time. Continue reading →
The South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest. The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.
The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing. All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined. On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.
It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying. So many places—and people—are just scraping by. Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place. Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing. They are exiles from the land of opportunity. Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing. With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.
Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?
How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography! Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades. But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium. As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times. Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.
The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history. Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive. From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.
These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time. The great addition of the newCapitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart. Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart. On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.
The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene. The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees. Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing. Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.
The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes. Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields. By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.
This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd. Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy. Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please. In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.
Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings? Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.
Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries. A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening. It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power. Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.
All images from the collections of the Library of Congress. Click on the images for more information and larger views.