Suddenly the past feels not so distant: Color Images from 1939-1943

Mike Evans, a welder, at the rip tracks at Proviso yard of the Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Chicago, Illinois, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mike Evans, a welder, at the rip tracks at Proviso yard of the Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Chicago, Illinois, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

It’s pretty rare that I find myself stunned by a series of photographs.

When it comes to historical photographs – I must admit that I more often than not find myself (or allow myself) to be overtaken by nostalgia.

Who doesn’t like to dream of how the “good old days” were – and how much more “simple” life was then relative to today.  Sure times may have been “tough” – but life was so relatively “simple” and “pure” relative to our technology-driven, impossibly fast-paced world of today – right?

The people we see in the average black and white historical photographs are clearly frozen in the past.  A world that I can only imagine and one that I often wish I had been able to witness.

That world (almost always photographed in black and white) is far removed from the one I see everyday.  Much of that has to do with the palette of the film and the grain structure of the film – the monotone nature making the homes, clothing, settings and faces – distant, and even at times ghostly.  I feel like I’m staring into the eyes of someone who has long ago passed away and who’s instance is captured in that single frame.

The following images were taken by the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information during the years of 1939-1943 are quite different from those photographs.   Notably – they are in color.   Many of these images were also shot on medium to large format negatives – and as a result show a pretty incredible level of detail.

The shocking thing for me, as I look at these images taken more than 67 years ago, is how real the people appear.  Suddenly they are not so distant, not so far removed from some of the people I have photographed in my career throughout this country and the world.   These are people I can relate to much more intimately.

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

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

In fact – they seem almost too real – too modern.   Were these photos taken yesterday on the set of a major motion picture – I would commend the art director / wardrobe / makeup and stylists… and wish them well with their filming of the second season of Boardwalk Empire.

I find these images pretty incredible as they tend to erase a lot of that sense of nostalgia that I often feel as I look into the past.  These images make me realize that while times were different, while clothes and technology and the landscape were less evolved – the people then are not so different than the people we know today.  At least not as different as I thought they were.

I’ve always known myself to be a bit of a sucker for dreaming of somehow getting the chance to travel back in time and to see how people REALLY were back then – and I think that I’ve see a glimpse of that dream in these pictures, and learned that perhaps the people then,  are much closer to the people I photograph in the present – than I ever wanted to imagine.

I’ve said enough – for now I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

For those interested in the history of these photographs, the goal of this government funded photojournalism was to capture the state of America as it pulled itself from the Great Depression and industrialized itself in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The following photographs are property of the Library of Congress and were included in the 2006 exhibit, “Bound for Glory: America in Color”  and thanks to David Meyer @dameyer for letting me know via twitter of the following link that shares so many more of these and of many other decades on the library of Congress’ online portfolio/archive.

Switchman throwing a switch at Chicago and Northwest Railway Company's Proviso yard. Chicago, Illinois, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Switchman throwing a switch at Chicago and Northwest Railway Company's Proviso yard. Chicago, Illinois, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Children in the tenement district. Brockton, Massachusetts, December 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Children in the tenement district. Brockton, Massachusetts, December 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Worker at carbon black plant. Sunray, Texas, 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Worker at carbon black plant John Vachon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Worker at carbon black plant. Sunray, Texas, 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Worker at carbon black plant John Vachon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Shulman's market, on N at Union Street S.W. Washington, D.C., between 1941 and 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Louise Rosskam. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Shulman's market, on N at Union Street S.W. Washington, D.C., between 1941 and 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Louise Rosskam. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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

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

Mrs. Viola Sievers, one of the wipers at the roundhouse giving a giant "H" class locomotive a bath of live steam. Clinton, Iowa, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mrs. Viola Sievers, one of the wipers at the roundhouse giving a giant "H" class locomotive a bath of live steam. Clinton, Iowa, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress