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Installation view of Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America’s Heartland. Photograph by Tom Loonan.

Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America’s Heartland

Friday, October 21, 2011
Sunday, January 22, 2012

1905 Building

Organized by Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and UB James Agee Professor of American Culture, with Albright-Knox Curator for the Collection Holly E. Hughes, this exhibition featured a selection of rarely seen color photographs from the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography collection. The black-and-white photographs taken by the FSA’s team—composed of Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965), Ben Shahn (American, 1898–1969), Russell Lee (American, 1903–1986), and others, under the leadership of Roy Emerson Stryker—include some of the most recognizable images of American cities, towns, and countryside during the Great Depression. The team began documenting America in 1935 and ultimately took at least 175,000 black-and-white images, as well as some color images using a film called Kodachrome.

No one knows exactly how many frames they shot in color, but only 1,615 survive. Until recently, most of these images had not been seen since they were initially processed by Kodak’s lab in Rochester well over half a century ago. Kodachrome, the most stable fine-grain color film ever made, was introduced as 16mm movie film in 1935. During the following three years it became available in canisters for 35mm cameras and in sheets for medium- and large-format cameras. By late 1939, the processing was as good as the film, and some of Stryker’s FSA photographers began experimenting with it. They continued their work after the FSA project was absorbed by the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942, through its dissolution in 1944. All of the project’s surviving color images are now available as high-resolution scans from the Library of Congress.

For this exhibition, Jackson, a photographer himself, selected, printed, and, in some instances, restored a representative group of images; some of the prints required more than a thousand separate corrections. Jackson's selections range from the first tentative explorations of Marion Post Wolcott (American, 1910–1990)—who used the film in the same way she used monochrome film—to the more complex color work of Lee and Jack Delano (American, 1914–1997)—who were beginning to understand that color photography was different than monochrome—and the hyped advertising-style propaganda images of Alfred T. Palmer (American, 1906–1993) from the early years of World War II. 

Color photography would not find a firm base in the art world until the exhibition of works by William Eggleston (American, born 1939) at The Museum of Modern Art in 1976, but, as the images in this exhibition demonstrate, the path was marked decades before by Roy Stryker’s FSA team. Their assignment was to document what America looked like during and at the end of the Great Depression; in the process, they discovered new ways the camera lens could see and represent the world.

This exhibition was organized by Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture, University at Buffalo, and Curator for the Collection Holly E. Hughes. It is presented in cooperation with The Humanities Institute, University at Buffalo, and the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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