With the help of Yale students and faculty, Depression era government photographs are gaining new accessibility, 21st-century style.
In early September, a Yale team received a $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to construct an innovative online archive of government-owned photographs taken during the Great Depression. When the grant, issued by the United States Office of Digital Humanities, goes into effect in October, it will enable the team to create a website with the server capacity to support the 160,000 images in the archive.
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Taken between 1935 and 1943 by renowned photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, the photographs document scenes of American poverty and were used as propaganda in government pamphlets in support of the New Deal. In the early 1940s, photographers shifted gears, focusing on images relevant to World War II.
While the photographs have long been accessible to the public through the Library of Congress website, the new website aims to enliven and increase public engagement with the material, said Professor Laura Wexler, the project’s director and a faculty member in the Public Humanities at Yale program.
Originally a project conceived by Lauren Tilton GRD ’16 and Taylor Arnold GRD ’14, with direction by Wexler, the website will go beyond what is currently available on the Library of Congress site. Photographs will be mapped geographically with a tool like Google Maps and matched with census data, said Taylor Arnold GRD ’14, who has led the site’s technical development. These maps will show the photographers’ routes around the country, giving viewers a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances under which each photograph was taken.
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Arnold said that while other sites have created similar visualizations of data sets, these typically encompass 50 to 100 data points, a far cry from the 160,000 photographs the team is attempting to plot.
The website will eventually benefit researchers, historians and students as young as middle-schoolers, Wexler said. The digital humanities widen what were previously areas of rarified scholarship, she said — rather than simply providing academics and students the raw photographs, tools such as the geographic overlay and corresponding census data kick-start engagement with the material.
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And the team hopes that the design of the website itself will contribute to the development of other archival sites. Tilton noted that all technical information about the site’s creation will be openly available.
“Anybody with a data set like this can use our technology,” she said. “Everything will be put online with the hope that [others] will come along and use similar methods and build on what we do.”
The team is currently at work gathering census data and creating captions for the photographs. They hope to have the data in a more interactive form within the next six months, Arnold said.
Correction: September 16, 2011
The article “Government photos take new form online” incorrectly credited the conception of the new website for Depression-era photographs to Lauren Tilton GRD ’16. The website was devised jointly between Tilton and Taylor Arnold GRD ‘14 with direction by professor Laura Wexler.