Created by a team at Yale, a new website called Photogrammar has made thousands of iconic images from the Great Depression and World War II more accessible to the public.
The project took a digitized collection of 170,000 Library of Congress photographs originally commissioned by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information — including works by Walker Evans, Dorathea Lange and Arthur Rothstein — and sorted them by county before mapping them geographically on an interactive website. In recent weeks, the project was featured by national media outlets such as the Atlantic and the National Public Radio, leading Photogrammar to amass a total of 75,000 hits and counting. Project co-directors Lauren Tilton GRD ’16 and Taylor Arnold GRD ’13 said they hope Photogrammar’s user-friendly interface will help connect the public with important pieces of visual history.
“Digital humanities is essential for history right now,” said David Gary, Yale’s American history librarian, who was not involved in the project. “With the existing data set from the Library of Congress, there was no way to easily search for photos or to take a bird’s eye view. Essentially, the Photogrammar team is giving the public a way to rethink the data from amazing new angles.”
The project was conceived when Tilton, who was doing research for her master’s concentration in public humanities, found herself frustrated by the limited number of search functionalities available on the Library of Congress website and wondered if there was anything she could do about it.
After asking herself whether there could be a new way to access and circulate historical photographs, Tilton said she came up with an innovative idea: to make the collection searchable by geographic region.
“The original goal was to be able to view the data in aggregate,” Arnold said. “It was really interesting to look at how these photos spread out on a map.”
After developing the idea and writing a preliminary computer program to prove the concept was possible, Tilton applied for a National Endowment from the Office of Digital Humanities and became the first Yale student to win an endowment from that office. She and Arnold proceeded to build their team, which includes map expert Stacey Maples, librarian Peter Leonard and professor Laura Wexler. Wexler — who is the founder and director of the Photographic Memory Workshop, a cross-disciplinary working group of Yale professors, staff and students that examines the relationship between images and memory — serves as director for the Photogrammar project.
In addition to its own geographical map, Photogrammar offers an interactive metadata dashboard between date, photographer and subject, which the team is still working to expand.
Photogrammar has also incorporated a classification system of tags designed by Paul Vanderbilt in 1942, Tilton said. She added that, when examining these tags, it was interesting to see how people used to classify photos and what they thought was important to archive.
Arnold said the Photogrammar team has been contacted by many organizations who are excited about the website, including public schools and museums.
“One of the things I’m really interested in is engaging more with the public about this, and figuring out ways to bring it into classrooms and libraries, nonprofits and museums,” he said.
According to both co-directors, the project has many future possibilities. The team is now looking into the possibility of incorporating census data at the county level, including the kinds of industries in each county. This would include valuable historical context with each photograph. Additionally, Photogrammar is in the early stages of developing a mobile interface, which would allow people to geotag various photographs.
Gary said he has already begun referring Yale students to Photogrammar in his capacity as an American history librarian. He added that this technology could be important to scholars, researchers and history buffs, alike.
“Data will be so immense in the future,” he said. “Troves are dumped on the national archives each year. These are the sort of tools that will help historians deal with that gigantic flood of data.”
The photos featured on Photogrammar were taken between 1935 and 1945.