Books for the News, History

Jarred by Color: Iconic Images from American History


Most iconic photographs of early twentieth-century-American life are in black and white. Take for instance Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” image, or any of the pictures she made while working for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s: these photographs, in muted tones, reflect the bleakness of the Great Depression but also serve to distance the modern viewer from the subject and her milieu. Black and white, to some degree at least, represents history and the past. That’s why it’s so jarring to see images from that era in color. This week, the photography blog of the Denver Post made available seventy incredible images, taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s, by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. In color, the subjects of these photographs seem less distant, more accessible, less inert, and more like us.
In recent years, the University of Chicago Press has published several books that consider the photography of Dorthea Lange and the role of iconic images. In 2008, we offered Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field by Anne Whiston Spirn, which presents never-before-published photos and captions from Lange’s fieldwork in California, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina in 1939. Lange’s images of squatter camps, benighted farmers, and stark landscapes are stunning, and her captions—which range from simple explanations of settings to historical notes and biographical sketches—add unexpected depth, bringing her subjects and their struggles unforgettably to life, often in their own words. To learn more about the book and its subject, read an illustrated excerpt. And in 2007, the Press published Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites’s No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, the definitive study of the iconic photograph as a dynamic form of public art. The authors consider widely recognized, historically significant, emotionally resonant images that are used repeatedly to negotiate civic identity and ask why these images are so powerful, how they remain meaningful across generations, and what they expose—and what they leave unsaid. Learn more about iconic images, including Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” in this excerpt.