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.
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
A boilermaker at a Chicago train yard, 1942
Boy near Cincinnati, Ohio, 1942
"Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, Calif. Shown checking electrical assemblies." 1942
"Mrs. Irene Bracker, mother of two children, employed at the roundhouse as a wiper, Clinton, Iowa." 1943
Rural school children, San Augustine County, Texas, 1943.
Farm worker, Puerto Rico, 1941.
"A carpenter at the TVA's new Douglas dam on the French Broad River, Tenn. This dam will be 161 feet high and 1,682 feet ong, with a 31,600-acre reservoir area extending 43 miles upstream. With a useful storage capacity of approximately 1,330,000 acre-feet, this reservoir will make possible the addition of nearly 100,000 kw. of continuous power to the TVA system in dry years and almost 170,000 kw. in the average year." 1942
"Making harnesses, Mary Saverick stitching, Pioneer Parachute Company Mills, Manchester, Conn." 1942
"Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma," 1939.
"Tank driver, Ft. Knox, Ky." 1942?
"Shepherd with his horse and dog on Gravelly Range, Madison County, Montana," August, 1942.
"Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas," 1940.