Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family. Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (Click to Enlarge)

Recently, I stumbled across a small online collection of rare color images taken by photographers from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information. The above photograph of Jack Whinery and his family was so remarkable and surprising that I immediately began exploring the online archive of the Library of Congress, which owns the images.

The 1,610 Kodachrome transparencies were produced by FSA and OWI photographers like John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee. They are less well known and far less extensive than their black and white images, but their rarity only increases their impact.

Sharecropper Bud Fields and his family at home. Hale County, Alabama, 1935 or 1936. Photo by Walker Evans. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (Click to Enlarge)

The black and white, Depression-era photographs of poverty-stricken, farm families have become so familiar in our culture that their color counterparts stun by comparison. When I look at a classic FSA image like Walker Evans’ photo of sharecropper Bud Fields and his family in Hale County, Alabama, there is a greater sense of distance between viewer and subject compared to the color images. It might be because I’ve seen this photograph before and my response has been dulled by overfamiliarity. Or it could be that the black and white medium suggests age or the exclusive status of “fine art.” But with the color photographs, these barriers of familiarity, time, and art are eliminated. In color, these people and places seem more modern, more real, more like us.

Young African American boy. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1942 or 1943. Photo by John Vachon. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (Click to Enlarge)