When documentary still photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn sent negatives from distant locations to Washington, they relied on the leisurely pace of the U.S. Mail. Employed by the government’s Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, they supplied some of the 160,000-plus photographs the agencies commissioned between 1935 and 1943.
Now, with a marriage of computer modeling and historical curiosity, the full catalog of well-known Depression-era and wartime photos will become accessible in innovative ways. Yale University doctoral students Lauren Tilton (American studies) and Taylor Arnold (statistics) are working with Professor Laura Wexler and digital specialists to build a research tool and website called the Photogrammar Project that can search and map the FSA-OWI photos spatially, temporally, and thematically, and overlay them with historical census data.
The Yale team, which won a $50,000, two-year digital humanities start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, sees possibilities for visualizing the intersecting journeys of FSA-OWI photographers, for example, or plotting the percentage of military images collected by month and location. The Library of Congress website, where the images are now archived, is a static online repository, Wexler explains. Photogrammar’s interactive platform will allow researchers to support or challenge accepted ideas about the FSA-OWI initiative and the period of American history it recorded by illuminating patterns undetectable when looking through the photos individually. The team believes this new methodology can be applied to other large archives as well. The website will launch this fall.
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