Images of Us: The Library of Congress Photostream Project
If a picture is worth a thousand words, than the Library of Congress Photostream project is more valuable than Fort Knox. From its cavernous collection of famous faces and everyday people to the far, exotic places and the farmer’s field just down the road, this online repository is truly a national treasure.
I’ve long been fascinated by photographic images of the past. I first came across a bound collection of historical shots as a twelve year-old volunteer at my local library. But it wasn’t until a few years later, while reading Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again, that it finally struck me: the characters in those often stiff and colorless images had been actual living, breathing human beings, just like me, my family and my friends. The photographs had merely frozen a moment of their lives in time.
As Finney pointed out, each had been doing something immediately before the photo was taken (even if it was only posing or grooming), and their full-color lives went on after the bulb popped, or the smoke from the flashpowder had dissipated. For example, can’t you “hear” Mrs. Lyman’s laugh in the photograph at left, and don’t you wonder what made her laugh so heartily?
The Library of Congress collection features a wealth of images, broken into categories, but sortable in multiple ways, and not all in black & white.
For example, one category, “the 1930s-1940s in Color,” contains rich color images from a era most of us have only seen in shades of gray, and features everything from female factory workers in wartime, rural landscapes, carnival entertainers, and the hearty homesteaders of Pietown, New Mexico. Other segments of the collection feature actual newsprint images, Abraham Lincoln, and thousands of news photos from 1910 alone.
The images are fascinating, and comments added by visitors (often with links to Wikipedia entries or other informative websites) shed more light on the subjects, rendering the images more lifelike by adding a virtual third dimension of detail.
Some date before the turn of the century, and give us glimpses into a class-divided society. Others focus on heroes of the sporting or show business worlds. Many are from the great depression, and are associated with the massive programs of the arts and cultural arm of the WPA.
I’ve collected a complete first edition set of the WPA guides to the United States (often referred to as the “American Guides”), and I consider these photographs to be a perfect compliment to the hardcover and softcover volumes and pamphlets published on the 48 states (plus the territories of Alaska and Puerto Rico…no WPA guide on Hawaii was published) and several major US cities.
A few “famous” photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, are represented in the collection, but most of the images were created by hard-working and little known craftspeople who often toiled for news or government agencies.
If you’re like me, and are drawn into the stories (and mysteries) of historical images, you’ll love clicking through the Library of Congress Photostream project. But don’t blame me if you get lost for a couple of days.