Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ansel Adams, Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange: Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives

"Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives" was a unique selection of color and black and white photographs celebrating 100 years of American life, drawn from the National Archives and Records Administration vast archives of more than 8 million images. This major exhibition opened in the National Archives Circular Gallery in Washington, DC, on March 12, 1999 and remained on display through July 4, 2001.

The photographs in this exhibition touched on all aspects of 20th century life. Along with the pictures one expects the government to keep -- images of Presidents and their families, of major wars, and of international diplomacy -- there are also many surprises --breathtaking vintage prints by Ansel Adams, heartbreaking vignettes of abject poverty and despair by well-known photographers such as Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, and snapshots of Americans at work and play by anonymous photographers. Taken as a whole, these 190 images reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of American life -- the ever-changing fabric that characterized this century. These photos capture fleeting moments in the rush of 20th-century events.

The exhibition opened with a portrait of American prosperity--Easter Sunday on Fifth Avenue in New York City, 1900, by an unknown photographer. The photograph reflects the innocence of the age -- pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages mingling together on New York's most fashionable street. There is no inkling of the first airplane, much less the first manned space flight, the two world wars with the intervening depression, racial unrest or the search for equality, all of which played major roles in shaping the 20th century and are pictured so strikingly in this new exhibition.

Only a few miles away, but worlds apart, the hustle and bustle of Hester Street life is depicted in a 1903 photograph.

A third photograph, thousands of miles away, shows another street scene at the dawn of the new century--this time Steadman Avenue in Nome, Alaska, painting a raw, frontier state.

In "Picturing the Century," as the years fold into decades, street scenes reflected the change of pace and complexity of life.

A vintage 1942 print by an unknown photographer shows a shopping district in Harlem, newly recovered from the Great Depression. Frankfurters are selling for 5 cents, fish lunches for 10 cents.

Four years later, a 1946 Russell Lee photograph of Welch, West Virginia, shows bumper-to-bumper traffic on the main street. Long lines of patrons snake down the block, waiting to see Van Johnson starring in the movie, "Born For Trouble."

Fast-forward another five years, to post-war prosperity in Chicago's burgeoning skyline. Oliver E. Pfeiffer's photograph pictures pedestrians hurrying to avoid oncoming traffic on Michigan Avenue with the Carbon and Carbide Building, the London Guarantee & Accident Building, Lincoln Tower, Pure Oil, and the Wrigley Building in the background.

"Picturing the Century" was arranged chronologically and depicted many of the momentous events of the century, as well as larger social trends. The initial section on the early twentieth century, for example, included historic photographs of the Wright Brothers' first airplane flight, an early automobile assembly line, and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York City. From the era of World War I and the 1920's came images of Liberty Loan rallies, suffragettes protesting in front of the White House, and the construction of the Empire State Building. Views of the Great Depression and New Deal included the effect of the Dust Bowl, public works projects, and portraits of personalities such as President Franklin Roosevelt, aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and actor Orson Welles.

World War II saw a tremendous growth in the numbers of photographs taken by the government. The exhibit featureed combat photography of the Normandy invasion, the battle of the Atlantic, and the war in the Pacific. Homefront images show the country's industrial mobilization. Postwar photographs illustrated the economic boom of the 1950's, the cold war, the Korean war, and the social ferment of the 1960's. The final sections of the exhibit featured many photographs from the collections of NARA's Presidential libraries as well as images of the Vietnam war and spaceflight photography from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Also showcased in the exhibition were eight portfolios of noted photographers, well represented in the holding of the National Archives. The portfolios included:

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
"Power house mechanic working on steam pump" 1920. Vintage print.
Records of the Work Projects Administration.

Sweeper and doffer boys in Lancaster Cotton Mills, December 1, 1908.
Many more as small. Lancaster, S.C.
Vintage print.
Records of the Children's Bureau.

George W. Ackerman (1884-1962)
"Farmer reading his farm paper" Coryell County, Texas, September 1931. 1998 print from the original negative.
Records of the Extension Service.

George W. Ackerman (1884-1962)
Farmer and his son listening in the evenings, Shawnee county,
Kansas, September 23 or 24, 1924.
1999 digital print.
Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
"Young migratory mother, originally from Texas" Edison, Kern County, California, April 11, 1940. 1998 print.
Records of the Bureau of Agriculture.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, July 2, 1942. Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at the
War Relocation Authority center.
1999 digital print.
Records of the War Relocation Authority.

Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975)
"Tired member of VF-17 pauses under the squadron scoreboard at Bouganville" February 1944.
1998 print from the original negative.
General Records Department of the Navy, 1798-1947 Economics.

Charles Fenno Jacobs (1904-1975)
Lunch time at the Vega aircraft plant, Burbank, California. A quartet of
girl workers, August 1943.
1998 print from the original negative.
General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798-1947.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984)
"The Tetons--Snake River" Wyoming, 1942. Vintage signed print.
Records of the National Park Service.

Ansel Adams(1902-1984)
Grand Canyon from South Rim,
1941, Arizona.
Vintage print.
Records of the National Park Service.