Stunning Color Photos of American Farms at Mid-Century

Recently we visited an old one-room schoolhouse in Bovina, NY.  To me, one-room schoolhouses reside firmly in the time of Anne of Green Gables, so I was surprised to learn that this school was actually in use until 1959. My parents could have attended -- the recentness of the era of one room schoolhouses inspired me to learn more about what it was like in rural America in recent history. 

I hit one of my favorite places on the internet: the Library of Congress's Flickr. I found a trove of gorgeous color photos of rural life, mostly shot in the early 1940's by the Farm Security Administration a federal program created as part of the New Deal, aimed at assisting poor farmers. The FSA's efforts were far-reaching and included things like resettlement camps for those displaced by the Dust Bowl, and co-op like communal farms (those freaked some people out, naturally).

But the FSA is best known for its photography program, which was initially started to capture the reality of rural life during the Great Depression. These photographs, in particular Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, made the struggle of rural life during the Depression palpable around the country, and across decades. 

But the photos I came across today are from slightly later: the early 1940's, and lack the starkness of the first FSA photos. 

They're shot on transparency slides or chromes, which is what gives the color such a luminous and almost surreal quality.

Rural school children, San Augustine County, Texas. Photographed by John Vachon.

Rural school children, San Augustine County, Texas. Photographed by John Vachon.

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Georgia. Photographed by Jack Delano.

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Georgia. Photographed by Jack Delano.

Shepherd with his horse and dog, Gravelly Range, Montana. Photographed by Russell Lee.

Shepherd with his horse and dog, Gravelly Range, Montana. Photographed by Russell Lee.

Migratory laborer outside of a "juke joint" during a slack season, Bella Glade, Florida. Photographed by Marion Post Wolcott.

Migratory laborer outside of a "juke joint" during a slack season, Bella Glade, Florida. Photographed by Marion Post Wolcott.

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm, vicinity of Caribou, Maine. Schools do not open until the potatoes are harvested. Photographed by Jack Delano.

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm, vicinity of Caribou, Maine. Schools do not open until the potatoes are harvested. Photographed by Jack Delano.

Cutting the pies and cakes ay the barbeque dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. Photographed by Russell Lee.

Cutting the pies and cakes ay the barbeque dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. Photographed by Russell Lee.

Boys fishing in a bayou, Schriever, Louisiana. Photographed by Marion Post Wolcott.

Boys fishing in a bayou, Schriever, Louisiana. Photographed by Marion Post Wolcott.

What I love about these images is how much they challenge my perceptions. For one thing, I never get over seeing color photographs from the 40's. Some of these images feel familiar: the boys fishing recalls Huck Finn, and I found myself thinking often of the Millet painting The Gleaners. They reach across centuries, hinting at the eternal. It's easy for that to feel romanticized or idealized; but the rawness of other images pulls me back down to earth. The women chopping cotton in a rented field, wearing pretty dresses with red dirt stuck to their legs, and the little boys farming potatoes instead of going to school, are important reminders of the daily struggle of farming then, now, and always. 

There are dozens more photos, which you can browse here.