Jack Delano - Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. (Farm Security Administration, 1941)
A lot of the color photos I’ve seen from before the 1950s strike me as stiff, over-worked, or so experimental as to be a “Hello, World.” They’re cool from a technical standpoint, but they often don’t tell you any more about the subject than a well-produced monochrome image would.
Given the costliness of the film and the complexity of the process, it’s easy to understand why early color photographers had to be choosy about picking the subjects and conditions that their camera could capture well (rather than, as is ideally the case, working the other way around).
But, sometimes, an old color photo brings a distant image to life and produces something kind of special. The best ones make their subjects and their surroundings seem far more real and intimate.
When done well, these images help repudiate the implicit modern reading that pre-color photography realistically captured the simple but alien lives of people who were neither as complex, interesting, nor sophisticated as we CMYK people are.
Look how funny the people in those old photos look! Did they even realize everything was just black and white? Man, they sure aren’t like us. They’re not like us at all.
In this vein, I may never turn up anything quite as jaw-dropping as the brilliant color images of early-1900s Russia that were made by Prokudin-Gorskii. I mean, those are like a portal into a world where we look like the monochrome simpletons—because those Russians look like they were living in fricking Oz.
I’m also frequently taken aback by color photos of World War II—they make the soldiers look like people you might see at the coffee shop tomorrow.
It’s such a visually striking image, capturing this otherwise bleak scene with astonishing clarity and saturated colors.
It also seems unusual to see the lives of such impoverished, marginalized people documented through a medium that you have to imagine was far from inexpensive in the early forties.
I love the composition, the depth of field, the dance-like rhythm of the subjects, and the crisp detail of things like the adults’ clothing and hats. I wish I could have met the lady in the plaid skirt, who looks to have tucked a flower or two behind the bow of her straw hat.
Wonderful photo. Striking people.
But, the real star of the show has to be that little boy standing on the left [zoom in]. He looks like he’s about my daughter’s age—maybe 3 or so.
He’s standing over there by himself, far enough away from the grown-ups (the image tells us) to be a little out of focus range. So he looks kind of fuzzy. But, Delano clearly framed and cropped the shot to make sure he was included.
But, he’s just standing there by himself. Three years old, standing in the sun, in the middle of a field that his family doesn’t own.
No chair. No shade. No juice box, Spongebob, or iPad. And, given the day of backbreaking labor ahead of the family who’d brought him, there’s certainly nobody to grab his hand, walk him over to the scant shade of that longleaf pine, and tell him his favorite story.
He just stands there. By himself.
I imagine this was neither the first nor last day this fuzzy little boy stood in that field by himself, watching his family work.
Not many years after this, he probably graduated to joining the dance himself. Eventually, when he was old enough to have a son of his own, he might bring him out to stand on his old spot. Maybe a few years after that, when the kid was big enough to pitch in, he learned to swing a hoe, too. And, so on. And, so on.
If he’s alive today, that fuzzy little boy on the left is now in his early 70s. I wonder if he knows he’s the star of an old color photo.
I wonder if his family was ever able to buy this or any other field. I wonder if they maybe found better work at the B-29 plant in Marietta or the shipyards of Savannah. I wonder if the boy ended up serving in Vietnam. And, if he did, I wonder if he ever made it home.
I wonder if he ever got to see his own fuzzy little kids spend their days standing someplace better than another man’s cotton field.
Because, I’ll just bet that on a lot of the days that fuzzy little boy stood by himself in a rented field, watching his family sweat, his own Dad worked and wondered a lot of these same things.
And, I’ll bet, as his hoe rang on the landlord’s clay, his Dad imagined a day when he’d hear his boy take step after crunching step toward anyplace but this field.
And, I’ll bet I never would have wondered any of this if I hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing such a wonderful photo of one fuzzy little boy, standing in a blindingly colorful field.