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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

color photos of a black-and-white world, part 1

Do you remember this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon? (The full strip is here.) It’s stuck with me for years for its humor, obviously, but also for its oddly pointed take on how our ideas about the past — from the mid 1800s through the 1930s — have been so shaped by black-and-white imagery that it almost doesn’t seem real when we’re suddenly confronted by rare color pictures from those era. And at the same time, it makes the past seem more real, as if those color images remind us more vividly than black-and-white seems to that the people and the places of the past were once just as alive as we are today.

I’ve come across a few recent examples of that sudden and delightful startlement, and I think you’ll be as astonished and enchanted by them as I was.

The first is from DenverPost.com, in a post entitled “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943.” From the introduction:

These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color.

A few choice examples:

Barker at the grounds at the state fair. Rutland, Vermont, September 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Clinton, Iowa, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Servicing an A-20 bomber. Langley Field, Virginia, July 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Rural school children. San Augustine County, Texas, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by John Vachon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

There are many, many more at DenverPost.com. Don’t miss them.

[part 2]



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  • Chris

    I would also highly recommend http://www.shorpy.com/

    While most of their stuff is black and white, they have quite a bit of Kodachrome pics from the mid-40s. I particularly love Jack Delano’s railroad work.

  • Those are beautiful. Thanks for the link.

  • Hank Graham

    Have you run into the color pictures of Czarist Russia?

    http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/

    These are pretty amazing, too.

  • CoriAnn

    Wow, this is incredible. It’s such a fascinating look into the past. Thanks so much for sharing!

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