Would you guess fifty-seven years? This portrait of a railroad worker taken in the roundhouse of the old Proviso Yard in Chicago exists as part of an online collection in the Library of Congress. Originally commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, this rare color photograph from 1942 looks like a movie still from some recent period film–probably because we lack any cultural references to relate to a full color snapshot from that era. As far as I can tell, WWII was fought in grisly black and white, as opposed to the more visceral jungle green and blood red of the Vietnam War newsreels. That’s just how we’ve always seen it…
What’s even more remarkable is that this entire archive was the vision of a government official. Roy Emerson Stryker fought in the Great War and later earned a degree in Economics from Columbia. When he lectured, he would illustrate his talks with his own photography. Eventually, his Columbia colleague Rex Tugwell left to head the Resettlement Administration, which evolved into the Farm Security Administration. Roy followed him there, eventually setting up one of the greatest photographic documentary projects in history. To effectively communicate the hardships the Depression wreaked upon the American heartland and some of the promise of the New Deal, he sent dozens of photographers out on very specific assignments to bring back images which they would feed the press. By the end of his project, the American public owned 77,000 published prints and 644 color images.
This economist, this manager, this amateur photographer proved to be one of our nation’s finest curators of artistic documentation. He could just as easily have chosen to be another anonymous bureaucrat, punching the clock and biding his time until his 6pm highball or his twenty-five year gold watch, but not Roy. His mind didn’t settle for the mundane but imagined something far more vivid. And because he bothered to think of it, we have a remarkable trove of images that pack an eye-opening empathy.
Do yourself a favor and spend an hour or two with his work by clicking here. After all, you own these images too.