Mental Floss

Amazing 70-Year-Old Color Photos

Ransom Riggs
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Sometimes looking at old photographs makes me think of this exchange between comic-strip hero Calvin and his dad:

Calvin: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they have color film back then?Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just the world was black and white then.Calvin: Really?Dad: Yep. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.Calvin: But then why are old PAINTINGS in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.

As absurd as it sounds, there is a kind of psychological truth to it -- having seen mostly black-and-white pictures of the world pre-1960 or so (I'm not counting Technicolor movies), I begin to imagine the past unfolding in monochrome. Every once in a while, though, a really old color photo made with some obscure, early color process will slip through and blow my mind.

But this really takes the cake: the Library of Congress has a Flickr page, on which they've posted thousands of color slides -- many of them hauntingly beautiful. The photographers worked for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, for whom many famous black-and-white pictures were taken around the same time (the iconic "Migrant Mother," for instance).

But rather than sending you off to pick through thousands of these photos on Flickr -- something of a laborious process -- we've compiled our favorites here. These are portraits almost as compelling as "Migrant Mother," but even more vivid -- almost hyper-real -- for their eye-popping color. (In fact, they hardly seem like historical photos at all.)

As for the main image above: "This husky member of a construction crew building a new 33,000-volt electric power line into Fort Knox is performing an important war service, Ft. Knox, Ky. Thousands of soldiers are in training there, and the new line from a hydroelectric plant at Louisville is needed to supplement the existing power supply." 1940

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