History Through the Camera Lens

Earlier this fall, I was struck by the photograph below, located on the wall outside the Still Pictures Room in our College Park facility.


Capt. Edward J. Steichen, USNR, (retired), photographic expert on island platform, studies his surroundings for one of his outstanding photographs of life aboard an aircraft carrier. Capt. Steichen held the rank of Comdr. at this time., ca. 11/1943

After reading the caption, I discovered that the famous photographer, Edward Steichen, had worked for the military during World War II. Ed McCarter, our Supervisory Archivist of Still Pictures, told me that Steichen had worked for the Navy on the U.S.S. Carrier Lexington in World War II, as a 62 year-old. At the National Archives, we have about 30 photographs that identify Steichen as the photographer, but there are likely many more because he also served as head of a photography unit in the Air Service in World War I.

Steichen was 67 years old when he completed active duty after World War II, and during that time had to be reinstated when he had reached retirement age. In his book, A Life in Photography, he describes his experience: “Everything about an aircraft carrier is dramatic, but the most spectacular things are the take-offs and landings of the planes.”


F6F takes off from USS Lexington (CVA 16) for third day of strikes in attack on Mili Atoll, Marshall Islands., ca. 11/1943. ARC ID: 520760.

For those who are interested and study photography, the National Archives collection of millions of photographs at our College Park facility is a treasure trove. As a researcher, in person and online, you can see pictures from famous photographers including Mathew Brady, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, and Imogen Cummingham, not to mention the multitude of unidentified government photographers.

Lewis Hine is another well known photographer found in the photographs of the National Archives. He began working as a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1906. For several years, he traveled around the country documenting the conditions of children working in factories, farms, and on urban streets. Producing more than 5,000 photographs for the NCLC, his work played a significant role in passing the Child Labor Law in 1916.


Rhodes Mfg. Co. Spinner. A moments glimpse of the outer world. Said she was 11 years old. Been working over a year. Lincolnton, N.C. 11/11/1908. ARC ID: 523106.

In 1936, Hine was hired as head photographer of the National Research Project on Reemployment Opportunities and Recent Changes in Industrial Techniques. He made photo studies of 14 industrial communities in various states along the Eastern Seaboard. Researchers can discover and learn from more than 1,100 photographs attributed to Hine through our catalog and on our Flickr photostream.


High Point, North Carolina – Upholstering. Tomlinson Chair Manufacturing Co. Upright belt sander chair arm – been at the furniture business 30 years  – man and machine in action, 1936-1937. ARC ID: 518490.

At the National Archives, we also have more than 3,000 photographs from Dorothea Lange. She worked tirelessly with the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies to document the victims of the Great Depression from California and Arizona to Southeastern states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.


Eloy District, Pinal County, Arizona. Mexican irrigator on duty preparing field for flax cultivation., 11/1940. ARC ID 522525.

During World War II, she worked for the War Relocation Authority to document the lives, living conditions, and treatment of the Japanese-Americans that were sent to Relocation camps for the duration of the war.


Centerville, California. Grandmother of farm family awaits evacuation bus…, 05/09/1942. ARC ID 537571.

Steichen, Hine, and Lange were talented photographers whose work with government agencies left an imprint not only on the history of the United States, but also on the history and development of documentary photography.

I encourage you to explore our extensive collection of photographs, thousands of which are digitized and available to you online. Check out our Flickr photostream, which is included in the Commons on Flickr, as well as featured on the iPad and iPhone applications called “indicommons.”

Who is your favorite photographer from the National Archives?


2 thoughts on “History Through the Camera Lens

  1. I have several favorite photographers, so I can’t pick just one from NARA’s holdings. Of course, since I’ve been researching the DOCUMERICA collection and talking with the photographers, I’ve got to mention some of them. One of my favorites is Erik Calonius. He was an intern for DOCUMERICA project director Gifford D. Hampshire, but also took assignments in D.C. and Ohio. Erik took this photo (http://bit.ly/h8lvQo) of a 727 landing at DC National Airport. This scenes happens every few minutes, only the hair, clothing and bicycle styles have changed. Erik went on to become a journalist and prolific writer.

    Another interesting DOCUMERICA photographer was John Vachon, who took an assignment photographing pollution in Puerto Rico. What’s most interesting is that Vachon had worked along with Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. Though he was a proven documentary photographer, correspondence accompanying the DOCUMERICA photographs reveals that Gifford Hampshire was not pleased with the quality of Vachon’s work. Surprisingly, Vachon was dismissed from the project.

    I can’t leave out Flip Schulke! (http://bit.ly/gWjltG) He and a group of his photojournalism students from University of Missouri-Columbia, set out for New Ulm, Minnesota, in October 1974 and captured life in small town America. Why New Ulm? Well, Schulke had grown up there and loved to make return visits. The New Ulm photographs are available in the Flickr Commons. Just search on “New UIm”. It’s important to note that Schulke earned fame for his other work in photojournalism. He was very close to the action during the Civil Rights movement in the American south in the 1960s. During that time, he bonded closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kings family. It is Schulke’s iconic photograph of Coretta Scott King in her black mourning veil which appeared on the cover Life magazine after King’s funeral in April 1968.

    Folks are slowly starting to notice DOCUMERICA and I’m excited to be part of its rediscovery.

  2. If you’re interested in photography and the National Archives, check out our Augmented Reality Photo Contest on Challenge.gov. Use an archival image and mash it up with today’s reality.

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