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“Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943”

Photojournalists are a stubborn lot: For decades after color processes became both technically and economically viable, they kept shooting in black and white. In fact, virtually any photojournalist who considered himself a serious practitioner of the form spent the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s working in grayscale. Some continue to this day. Part of the reason had to do with meeting deadlines. Part had to do with accommodating wire services and printing-press operators. And part had to do with corporate bean counters’ concerns over how much color photography might cost. But I’d bet that most of the anti-color sentiment had to do with a long, deeply ingrained prejudice among photographers, both those who work in news and the fine-arts types: Black and white is the Truth.

The mechanical capture of basic facts of light, shadow, and shape couldn’t be anything else, right? Even if we know that’s not exactly right, it’s a powerful myth—one that’s served everyone from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Gerhard Richter to Barbara Kruger to Bernd and Hilla Becher to Ed Ruscha. We wouldn’t get their art if we didn’t get black and white’s associations with reportage, authority, and scientific detachment. That’s why the Library of Congress’ “Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943” is such an intriguing exhibition: It shows the early stages of how these associations became just that—how they changed from the Truth to a kind of truth.

The show consists of 70 documentary photographs made by using the then-brand-new Kodachrome process, the first color photographic system that was feasible for ordinary photojournalistic work. These digital prints, made from the original transparencies, have been culled from a cache of 1,602 Kodachrome images made by the famed photographic unit of the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, a New Deal project tasked with documenting the economic devastation being wrought throughout America.

If 1,602 images sounds like a lot, it isn’t; that number is tiny compared with the 170,000 black-and-white photographs made for the project during its long run. In fact, due to a filing error at the Library of Congress, this relatively small group of color photographs was entirely forgotten until 1978, when it was accidentally rediscovered by a student researching her Ph.D. dissertation. Even then, the color photos were known to only a small group of cognoscenti until last year, when the 175-image Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–43 was published.

The subsequent exhibition documents a fascinating turning point in the history of photography, a time during which people who were used to seeing in black and white were forced to represent the world in a whole new way. Not that “Bound for Glory”’s curators seem aware of this. They give us few direct comparisons of black-and-white and color images and tell us precious little about what these photographers were thinking or how they worked.

Instead, the curators seem awed by the simple fact that color photographs of the Great Depression exist at all. This is perfectly understandable: Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother, Margaret Bourke-White’s bread lines, Walker Evans’ struggling sharecroppers—all of these have profoundly shaped our understanding of America’s grimmest decade. And all of them are black-and-white.

Though most standard histories of photography include some samples of color imagery made prior to the ’30s, these techniques were obscure, technically complicated, and hardly—if ever—used for photojournalistic or documentary purposes. A good example is the autochrome process, which was unveiled in 1907. Autochromes recorded images on film coated with a matrix of tiny starch grains that had been dyed orange, green, and violet. The grains filtered out different wavelengths of light in a manner that enabled a full-color image to be recorded—albeit with a fuzzy focus and dreamy hues that were best suited for fine art, not photojournalism.

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Indeed, no film that was practical for documentary work emerged until the advent of Kodachrome slide film in 1935, followed by Kodacolor print film a few years later. Unless earlier photographs taken by FSA photographers have been lost to history, it appears that the team began to use Kodachrome in 1939—another indication, perhaps, of journalistic professionals’ hesitancy to use color.

Maybe they were right—after all, one of the most striking features of the photos on display is how casual they appear. Aside from a few formal-looking pictures of churches, haystacks, and Main Streets, these are images that thrive on happenstance. Consider At the Vermont State Fair (1941), Jack Delano’s portrait of a mother and her seven children. The picture offers a balance of orderliness and chaos that could only have been stumbled upon by chance. It was taken at the precise moment at which each child was looking in a different direction; only one girl seems aware that the photograph is being taken, and she’s making an unforgettably funny face, half-quizzical, half-sneering. Several of the girls wear dresses made from identical cloth, an eye-catching red dotted with a small pattern in blue and white. This shared color visually unifies the brood in a way that black and white never could, no matter how skilled the photographer.

Another example of bracing spontaneity is Hauling Crates of Peaches From the Orchard to the Shipping Shed (1940). Sure, Russell Lee discovered a mesmerizing formalism in the tightly packed boxes of fresh-picked fruit being lugged through an orchard. But the denim-clad man in the image, seen only from the back, has his gaze fixed elsewhere—perhaps on the horses that pull his cart through parallel rows of fruit trees, perhaps on the withered-looking hillside that just peeks through the leaves where perspective forces those trees together. It’s an arresting composition, full of strong lines and contrasting textures—one of those photographic achievements Cartier-Bresson likened to “instant drawing.” Yet it’s the color that steals the show: The bright, unruly stacks of yellow-and-orange peaches reflect the strong sunlight as much as the deep green of the orchard absorbs it, and that brown hillside ever so subtly lets us know that we’re not looking at a pastoralist paradise.

In black-and-white images, it may be impossible to tell a fertile green field from a dying mass of grass. Whether by accident or on purpose, the photographs in “Bound for Glory” make such distinctions perfectly clear. Marion Post Wolcott’s 1940 picture of corn being planted along a river in Tennessee, for instance, is a composition of rich greens and browns, and Lee’s 1940 portrait of the Caudills from Pie Town, N.M., captures not only their weatherbeaten faces but also Mrs. Caudill’s festive print dress in red, white, and blue. The rich hues of Wolcott’s corn-planting photograph communicate hope and progress, and Mrs. Caudill’s dress adds an air of levity (not to mention a subtext of patriotism) to an image that, in shades of gray, could have easily come off as downcast and dreary.

There are, to be sure, occasional signs of difficulty in “Bound for Glory”—a farm auction, or a gathering at which surplus commodities are being distributed. But most of the images on display are optimistic, even comforting. Fresh-faced schoolchildren appear with regularity; so do examples of patriotism and piety, frequently in the context of fairs and other recreational events. The farm views here are far more likely to feature lush crops and bountiful harvests than the tractored-out moonscapes made famous by Lange. Dinner tables, such as the one documented by Lee in Pie Town, may be messy, but they do have food on them.

Part of this optimistic feeling has to do with the project’s time frame: By the time FSA photographers were packing Kodachrome into their beaten-up Fords, the nation was bouncing back, albeit slowly. As the recovery went on, the office’s mission shifted from documenting a country in dire economic straits to presenting one on the way to recovery. This tendency became even more pronounced after World War II began and the FSA’s photographic unit was shifted to the Office of War Information—the public-affairs arm of the U.S. military. The “Bound for Glory” images made during this period typically include some combination of heroic-looking blue-collar workers and heavy machinery or infrastructure.

The war photos lack what the Depression images have in spades: a heart-rending sense of vulnerability. The color pictures in “Bound for Glory” aren’t necessarily better or more accurate—or, alternately, worse and more misleading—than the earlier black-and-white ones we’re all familiar with. But they do provide both emotional resonance and a more fully rendered view of America. In a photograph by Wolcott from 1940, for example, a black tenant farmer’s home near Lake Providence, La., is lit by a pleasant, cloud-dotted sky. The poverty of the scene is still readily—indeed, baldly—apparent. Yet the blue sky, something that would likely have registered in black and white as an ambiguous gray, reminds the viewer that even the poorest can sometimes take joy in small things, such as a day of lovely weather. In monochromatic retrospect, we rarely ascribe them that luxury.

Maybe color photography has simply become its own kind of truth: the idiom of Hollywood films, TV ads, and vacation snaps, as seductive and reassuring as those crusty old photojournalists always suspected. We know that’s not exactly right, either. But it seems clear that if Lange, Evans, and Bourke-White had been working in color rather than in black and white at the depths of the Depression, our understanding of what they saw would be noticeably different. The great lesson of “Bound for Glory” is that swapping color for black and white doesn’t eliminate the shades of gray from this era of photographic history—it only intensifies them.CP