The image of the bustling city of New York as seen from above immediately impresses upon the mind of a United States that can only go upwards and onwards, yet there was a time when America was struggling to get on its feet from the ravaging effects of the Great Depression. It seems like a distant legend now, but these color photographs revive the idea of an America that was once not so great, yet bound for glory. These are color pictures of Old America from the Library of Congress.
"Bound for Glory: America in Color" collected some 70 images of rural and urban America from 1939 to 1943 and exhibited these fantastic images all over the US. The images were taken from a larger collection of color and black-and-white images from the Library of Congress.
All of these photographs come from Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information (FSA-OWI). Many notable photographers took photos in behalf of the FSA, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein and Gordon Parks. You might not recognize these names, but you've certainly seen a photo or two from at least one of them without realizing who took the picture.
The FSA was created in order to alleviate the conditions of the Great Depression in the US. While the program wasn't very successful, it's still famous today for its photographic unit and the brutally honest images it produced of the US at that time. While color photography was already available in different forms during the 1920s and 1930s, black-and-white was still preferred for its affordability, ease of use and ease of film processing. These color images were most probably made with Kodachrome, the earliest commercially successful color film for photography.
Armed with this handy film, the FSA-OWI photographers spread out to almost all of mainland United States, and even crossed over to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It was thought that no color images of pre-war US were taken, until these same images were discovered in 1978. Some 30 years later, they've been made publicly available.
While there are over 107,000 black-and-white photographs that were made during the pre-war era in this Library of Congress collection, only 1,610 color images were made. This makes the collection even more memorable as they give a different level of vitality to these historical images, even to those more somber ones.
The color photographs are like a 3-dimensional bridge from America's rocky days in the depression to the momentous years of World War II. They show a people in the midst of hardship, but ever resilient and ever hopeful, on the brink of glory.
More color pictures of Old America can be found at the Library of Congress exhibit site over here. If you prefer, you can also find some of the images on Flickr in the set, 1930s-1940s in color. For the full set, go over here. You can get a hardcopy as Bound for Glory: America in Color 1939-43. On a related note, you might also want to get The Day in Its Color: Charles Cushman's Photographic Journey Through a Vanishing America and New Deal, The: 75th Anniversary Celebration.