April 7, 2015 by nbrown24
For the digital history site review I decided to take a look at the Photogrammar website, which is coordinated by Yale University. As one could probably infer from the title, the Photogrammar site houses an archive of photographs (probably best described as a large collection of photographs), taken during the years 1935-1946 by the federal government. The Library of Congress currently owns the entire collection.
During the decade known as the Great Depression, President Roosevelt instituted several New Deal programs that were aimed at pulling the country out of the state of economic stagnation that had crippled the nation. One of these, the Resettlement Administration, was given the task of assisting the poorest third of farmers that had been displaced by the dire economic conditions and resettling them on new, viable farmland while also providing them with low-interest loans as start up capital.
The Resettlement Administration was not without its critics and the director, realizing the need for a positive public image, hired Roy Stryker to document the work of the Administration in an effort to espouse the benefits of government assisted programs in what was called the Historical Section. Stryker subsequently contracted work to numerous photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein, who were tasked with travelling the country in order to document the good deeds done by the Administration. The photographers would take pictures and then send the rolls of negatives back to Washington D.C. to be processed, and in the end a total of roughly 170,000 photographs were taken. Out of the total, the government printed and filed 88,000 photos. In 1937 the Resettlement Administration was rolled into the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and with the beginning of World War II the Office of War Information (OWI) acquired the FSA collection. The OWI continued to employ the photographers, who were now documenting the war, and in the end the collection became known as the FSA-OWI File. The collection that Yale University is presenting also includes photographs from the Office of Emergency Management-Office of War Information Collection, the America at War Collection, and the Portrait of America Collection, and the inclusion of these photos (none of which come close to the staggering amount of FSA-OWI photographs), brings the collections end date to 1946.
In March of 2011, Yale University Public Humanities applied for a National Endowment of the Humanities Start-Up Grant. Their stated goal was to “offer an interactive web-based open source visualization platform for the one-hundred and sixty thousand photographs created by the federal government from 1935 to 1943 under the Farm Securities Administration and Office of War Information”. The grant was awarded in September of that same year, for the amount of $49,982, and was set to expire in May of 2015. The initial project design, as detailed by the grant, was to include an interactive map where the photos would be placed over historical county and census data and would allow users to construct statistical analysis and visualizations from the websites data. The grant also states that the accompanying code and document details would be available to the public at large. In order to accomplish these goals, the Yale University team is comprised of six members (and one former member) – a primary investigator, two co-directors, a map expert, an implementation coordinator, and the former and current project manager. The team members come from a variety of backgrounds that include history, public humanities, statistics, GIS and the technology sector. With the amount of data that is being exists on the site, and especially the way in which it is presented, it is easy to see why the Photogrammar project needs all of these team members.
The Photogrammar site itself if absolutely wonderful. The layout is quite simple: a black bar at the top of the page serves as a header, with the title and links to the maps, a search function, an “About” section that provides background information on the collection, the team, contact information and a blog (which is very brief with four total posts over the four years of the project), and a connection to the labs section. Beneath that is a tan area that provides very basic information on the collection and contains a button-style link, “Start Exploring”, that will take a user right to the map. Below that section is a white area with three different titles, a brief description of what these titles represent, and more button-style links. In reality these links at the bottom take you to the same place as those on the banner (map, about the collection, and the labs), but it doesn’t hurt to have redundancy. The simplicity of the design provides functionality, and there is little else on the page, with the exception of the Yale and NEH logos, to serve as a distraction.
The highlight of the website is its interactive map, which can be accessed by three different points on the main page. It is a basic gray-scale map, zoomed to the U.S., with counties that have any pictures from the collection outlined and shaded green. The darkness of the green is different depending on the amount of photos within that county, with some being almost black, meaning they have more photographs, while others are a dull gray-green. Counties without photos remain in the background. Clicking on a county takes you to another page where the photographs are displayed in thumbnails. Each photo has a caption, location, date and photographer name. Fulton County, for example, has a total of 102 photos. If you were to click on the first photo, “Negroes and houses. Atlanta, Georgia”, you will find a larger version of the photo and all of its metadata. The metadata includes the caption/original description, the photographer, the date created, the location, the classification (from the original tagging system), lot number or shooting assignment, the Library of Congress call number, and section of similar photos that come from all over the country. I easily spent hours with the map, clicking on counties throughout Georgia and from other places in the U.S. that I have visited, getting lost in the beautiful black and white historic photos.
The lab section of the website is also interesting, though I admittedly spend less time playing around with all the functionality there than I did on the interactive map. There are three additional ways to look through the photos: the Treemap of the 1942 classification system, which arranges the photos by type; the Metadata Explorer, which was interesting but currently only available for California; and the ColorSpace, which would allow you to explore the color photographs in the collection by hue, saturation, and lightness. The last option is currently unavailable, as the button-link still says “Coming Soon!”.
Overall I think the website does a great job of organizing the FSA-OWI photographic collection into an easy, and fun, searchable archive. While some of the search tools still need some work, like the Metadata Explorer and the ColorSpace function, you can still find pictures based on location, photographer, lot number, classification tags, or date. I think the simple design of the website works to its advantage, eliminating clutter and making the archive seem more professional. As the collection is owned by the Library of Congress, the photos are part of the public domain unless otherwise stated, which I found out on the “About” page. Photogrammar meets its goal of being an archive that can be accessed by anyone, and the ease of its use makes sure of that accessibility.