Seeing the Great Depression

A new project from Yale invites viewers to explore some 175,000 images of America in the 1930s and '40s.
Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress

For a singular image of the Great Depression and the roughness of those years, it's hard to do much better than Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, two of her children tucking their faces over her shoulders, a baby in her lap.

Where that image comes from, there are many, many more: around 175,000 surviving portraits of America between 1935 and 1945 taken by the photographers of the government's Farm Security Administration. The Library of Congress, which houses the collection, has, remarkably, digitized all the negatives and tagged the records with loads of data, such as who took the picture and where it was taken.

Now, thanks to a new project known as Photogrammar from Yale University, viewers will have a much easier time exploring the photographs. There's a map that displays the images by county and another that shows where each picture was taken and by which photographer. There's also an interactive that allows viewers to sort the photos by theme (e.g. "war" or "religion") and then browse from there. Other tools are still in the works.

Whether by geography or by theme, it's worth spending some time playing around in this vast archive to build a greater visual sense for that period in American history. Here are a few of my personal favorites so far:

Kids napping in Radburn, New Jersey (Carl Mydans/FSA)

 


Marriages here. Salome, Arizona (Russell Lee/FSA)

 


An inmate at an insane asylum in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island, Virgin Islands. According to the LIbrary of Congress, "He is an alien of Indian nationality, but cannot be sent back to India because of the expense and war conditions." (Jack Delano/FSA)

 


Agricultural workers bound for upstate New York in time for the harvest (John Collier/FSA)

 


A farmer near Black River Falls, Wisconsin (Russell Lee/FSA)
Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Business

Just In