Color photos of Depression-era American small towns

The Denver Post collects some of the Library of Congress's best color photos from the early 1940s, chronicling Depression life in small towns.

These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color.

Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943 (Thanks, Tony!)


  1. If a photo has notches in it at the top (like the one above) it was taken on large format (ie at least 4×5 inch) film, the notches are so you can tell which way the emulsion is facing in the dark for loading purposes. Consequently, any photos with the notches are almost certainly posed (large format cameras are not very good for candid work – it has been used for press work and photojournalism in the past with graflex cameras, but the unobtrusive thing doesn’t work very well, additionally, I am willing to bet that early colour slide film was very slow, necessitating a tripod). 

    In the case of a portrait (as above) it can’t be candid anyway. In fact, the above paragraph has almost no bearing on the photos in the link, they do not pretend to be candid, they are honest and in many cases beautiful photos. I just though it would be fun to share some technical info, and shed some light on the cameras used ( like this )
    But really, damn, some of those are poignant.

    1. Obviously these were taken in a portrait studio, and the outdoor shots taken with advance notice, so everyone could put on their finest dust-encrusted ensembles.

      Or, you, know, maybe there is more than one workable definition of candid.

      1. You may have missed my point, I wasn’t trying to accuse these of being staged or inauthentic – I have little doubt that these photos are taken as they were found.

  2. Beautiful. Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ started playing in my head immediately though. Damn you, Trier! *shakes fist*

  3. Err…   I though it was general consensus that the great depression was from1929 to 1939?    I’d alway play 1939 to 1943 as WW II era.

    Good photos, though I think Boing Boing linked to them before. 

  4. Government sponsored art photography a priceless trove to future generations?  Bah!  More like fancypants fru fru artists who can’t get a real job without handouts!

  5. I wonder when the New Deal is going to get around to Brockton?  It looks worse now than it did then.

  6. All these pictures are available off the Library of Congress website, plus more. You can easily lose an afternoon typing in the names of various cities and geographical features around the country seeing what’s available. 

    Obviously color photos are relatively rare, but there are mountains of digitized black and white photos.

    1. If they’re square dancing, they’re doing it wrong. They’ve got the sweating down pat, though.

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