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Full Color Depression

Bruce Jackson curates an exhibit of FSA photographs at the Albright-Knox

The photographs produced in the mid and late 1930s under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration and the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker are iconic, instantly recognizable for their content: stark countrysides, railyards, towns and cities stricken by a monumental collapse of the economy; day laborers, sharecroppers, factory workers, and their families. The photographers who made them have become icons, too—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, among others—with styles as recognizable as the subject matter, which was America itself. They shot their subjects straight-on, seemingly unembellished, in black-and-white film.The photographs produced in the mid and late 1930s under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration and the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker are iconic, instantly recognizable for their content: stark countrysides, railyards, towns and cities stricken by a monumental collapse of the economy; day laborers, sharecroppers, factory workers, and their families. The photographers who made them have become icons, too—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, among others—with styles as recognizable as the subject matter, which was America itself. They shot their subjects straight-on, seemingly unembellished, in black-and-white film.

Or so most of us have always imagined. In fact, the FSA’s photographers also carried rolls of a new film called Kodachrome, originally developed by Kodak for 16-millimeter motion picture cameras and eventually adapted for 35-millimeter cameras as well as medium- and large-format cameras. “It was the first opportunity for walk-around photographers to experiment with color, which is very different from working in black-and-white,” says Bruce Jackson, the UB professor who has curated a show of color FSA photos that opens at the Albright-Knox on Friday, Ocober 21. “Some of them continued to shoot the same way they had in black-and-white, but others developed a new way of seeing asa result.”

Only 1,615 color images survive; they are archived at the Library of Congress’s and high-resolution files are available at the American Memories webpage. Jackson has chosen 36 of these images and performed restoration work where necessary. The result is an extraordinary awakening of the images of the Depression that are a part of the shared memory of Americans. What were icons in black-and-white become human beings in color; impossibly distant and forbidding landscapes become recognizable, even comforting; life and the possibility of movement flows into street corners and faces and automobiles that seemed forever fixed.

“You don’t think about it,” Jackson says, “but black-and-white is an abstraction. It changes the way you consider the reality of a photograph.”

In 1942, the FSA photography project was absorbed into the Office of War Information; it was dissolved in 1944. The project’s purpose was to show Americans their own country in the grip of the Great Depression, and, in their success, the FSA’s photographers created new genres of art and journalism. The images Jackson presents in this exhibition at the Albright-Knox show that they were blazing new paths in color, as well.

Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America’s Heartland opens Friday, October 21 and runs through Sunday, January 22. Then the show opens the very next day at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, where it will be through July.

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