Sunday, September 7, 2014

Photogrammar's Images of Pittsburgh

I recently came across a historical pictorial archive which belongs to the Library of Congress, and has been presented to the public via Photogrammar. Photogrammar is an effort by Yale University which gives the public easy access to the images. The following is a clipping from that site.


From 1935-1944, the Farm Security Administration — Office of War Information undertook the largest photography project ever sponsored by the federal government.


After a series of setbacks in the courts that repealed many of the First New Deal’s program, President Roosevelt pursued a new set of initiatives including the Resettlement Administration in 1935. It was charged with aiding the poorest third of farmers displaced by the depression and particularly focused on resettlement on viable lands and providing low-interest loans. Directed by Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia University economist, the RA came under immediate scrutiny. Realizing the battle for public opinion had begun, Tugwell hired his former student Roy Stryker to lead the Historic Section within the Information Division of the RA, which in 1937 was moved to the FSA.


In order to build support for and justify government programs, the Historical Section set out to document America, often at her most vulnerable, and the successful administration of relief service. The Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) produced some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression and World War II and included photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein who shaped the visual culture of the era both in its moment and in American memory. Unit photographers were sent across the country. The negatives were sent to Washington, DC. The growing collection came to be known as “The File.” With the United State’s entry into WWII, the unit moved into the Office of War Information and the collection became known as the FSA-OWI File.

My first dive into the site landed me in Pittsburgh, time traveling back to when coal mining and steel production were in their prime, pollution was rampant, and squalor was all too common. In contrast to the somewhat comical image above the images of Pittsburgh from that point in time are fairly depressing. If this is the image of the city people had, or still may have, then that is why I often had to explain - Pittsburgh isn't like that anymore.
Nonetheless, in many ways Pittsburgh hasn't changed that much even with the many and varied improvements which more than counterbalance the bad.... depending on where you live in the city, of course. There is quite contrast between the image from around 1935 above, with the active mills in the distance, and my shot last winter when I was home. Color makes everything better, along with a clear and clean sky. As I walked the neighborhood however, many of the homes are just waiting for their final chapter which may not ever come.

As you'll see in my slide show pollution reigns supreme. It is no wonder that the office workers in downtown Pittsburgh had to change their nice white shirts at noon in order to be presentable! My collection has images of the interior of mines, steel mills, and portraits of the people who made Pittsburgh strong during the support of the war effort. I was somewhat shocked when viewing the conditions they lived and worked in.
Yes, you know it is bad in mines, even today. But like so many things in our way of living we just can't pay attention to all the dark side of things. It was interesting to see the home of a mine superintendent living is relative splendor, and then look at the miners being trolleyed around in mining cars.
The dilapidated housing, called slums in the captions for the images by whoever catalogued the FSA-OWI collection, really hit home for me. I grew up not that far from those 'slums' which I saw on a daily basis when walking 2 miles to high school.
My favorite part of my slideshow are the portraits. There is a hint of despair around the edges, but in most cases they seem to be genuinely smiling. It was the post-depression era, and the entry into WWII. They had work to do, and they were doing it, men and women alike. You'll see a few Rosie-the-Riveters, along with what eventually became war-time propaganda imagery.
The Photogrammar site is easy to use. I encourage you to do your own time travel and let me know where you ended up!
Take a look at my collection too. It is a visual education on the blood and sweat that made the country strong when we needed to get the job done.

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