Images of Us: The Library of Congress Photostream Project

The New York Tribune, December 27, 1908

The New York Tribune, December 27, 1908

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.

Mr. and Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Lyman, Polish tobacco farmers near Windsor Locks, Connecticut

Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Lyman, Polish tobacco farmers near Windsor Locks, Connecticut

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.

Dorethea Lenge's "Toward Los Angeles"

Dorothea Lange's "Toward Los Angeles"

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.

- craig hodgkins

~ by Craig Hodgkins on July 10, 2009.

7 Responses to “Images of Us: The Library of Congress Photostream Project”

  1. great images!

  2. 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?

    What I’d like to know is if Mr. Lyman was pulling his shirt out or tucking it back in…

    I’m also curious about the two men in the other photo. Specifically, was it a hot day?

  3. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Who knows? Mr. Lyman may have been saying “A picture? Let me tidy myself up a bit.” OR “Well, you’re photographing the best lookin’ man in New England.” That’s the beauty of it. We’ll never know. But I love the relationship evident in this photo. This couple have logged some serious miles together.

    Regarding the Lange photo, I’ve often thought that B&W landscapes feel warmer…something about the gray tones emphasize the dusty road, the dry field and the spare, whispy clouds in the sky. Add to that the knowledge that this was taken during the dust bowl/depression era, when cars broke down all alongside Route 66 for lack of water, and I get thirsty just thinking about it.

    Just my impressions.

    • Add to that the knowledge that this was taken during the dust bowl/depression era, when cars broke down all alongside Route 66 for lack of water, and I get thirsty just thinking about it

      Oh wow. I’m getting thirsty too.

  4. That is one of my favorite photographs, never knew the name of it, saw it once an it stayed with me.

  5. According to a man who interviewed the photographer (Jack Delano) in the early 80s (and who wrote the “back of print” notes for a limited issue print of this and other photos), here’s the story of the laugh: Delano simply told Mr. Lyman that his pants were falling down, and snapped the photo as he started to adjust them, and as his wife tossed her head back in laughter.

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