The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) color photographs provide a vivid glimpse into life in the United States from 1939 to 1945 — a period more often viewed through a monochromatic lens. If you are familiar with the FSA/OWI photographs at the Library of Congress, chances are that the first images that come to mind are from the 175,000 or so black-and-white negatives, which include Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Florence Owens Thompson (“Migrant Mother”) and Gordon Parks’s of Ella Watson (“Government Charwoman”). The color images are less well-known, in part because they total only about 1,600 images, but together with the black-and-white photos they were part of the same project to paint a picture of life in the United States, first as Americans coped with the Great Depression and then as they mobilized to enter World War II. The color photographs are digitized and readily accessible through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
When I recently browsed through the images from the collection, photos of social gatherings particularly caught my eye, possibly because such events are less common in many parts of the world these days.
It should come as no surprise that Farm Security Administration photographers documented agricultural activity, with an emphasis on the farmers and families who made use of the agency’s loan programs.
As with the FSA/OWI black-and-white images, the color images include depictions of life in cities as well as in rural areas. This image of two young girls relaxing in a park near Union Station in Washington, D.C. caught my eye.
Row houses are a familiar sight to residents of Washington, D.C. — when my young son saw this image he assumed it was taken recently.
Among the best-known images from the collection are those of women working to support the war effort after the U.S. entered World War II. The women in these photos are building bombers.
We hope these images give a sense of the variety this collection has to offer, and encourage you to explore more on your own.
- Explore the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs in this collection overview.
- A Flickr album focusing on the FSA color photos provides another way see the images, along with the reactions of fellow viewers.
- See Bound for Glory: America in Color, an online version of an exhibition about the FSA/OWI color images.
- Read about and and view Gordon Parks’s images of Ella Watson. For information about Dorothea Lange’s images of Florence Owens Thompson, see this guide.
Our C-SPAN American History TV American Artifacts series featured this collection in two half-hour programs with curator Beverly Brannan – she knew some of the photographers:
A beautiful selection of these lovely photographs. And thank you to Richard Hall for the double links to the two parts of Beverly Brannan’s excellent summary on the creators of the color images. I had missed this presentation in 2020.