A Pictorial Panorama of the 20TH CENTURY

By Bustard, Bruce I. | USA TODAY, November 1999 | Go to article overview

A Pictorial Panorama of the 20TH CENTURY


Bustard, Bruce I., USA TODAY


Photographs from the National Archives and Records Administration freeze vivid images of a turbulent century in stunning pictures of humanity and inhumanity, triumph and tragedy, and famous and ordinary people.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island; the Wright Brothers' first flight; building the Empire State Building; a Depression-era soup line; Omaha Beach on D-Day; an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud; Lyndon Johnson taking the presidential oath after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; a young marine in Da Nang, Vietnam; footprints on the moon; war in the Persian Gulf....

Old photographs are time machines. They allow us to look back in history, freeze a moment in time, and imagine ourselves as part of the past. Through historic photographs, we can see how famous and ordinary folk appeared in both posed and unguarded moments. We can relive great events and everyday life in exquisite detail. We can learn how people dressed and carded themselves, and we can sometimes judge their moods. Studying photographs helps us imagine what it was like when the first airplane took off, when a landing craft ramp fell open on D-Day, or when the first man stepped onto the moon.

The events of the 20th century have been captured in billions of photographs. Some are so familiar that they have come to stand for an event in its entirety. Others surprise viewers with their beauty, power, or original point of view. To commemorate the 20th century, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is presenting an exhibition of selected photographs from its holdings. It showcases the Archives' photographic riches and illustrates the changes in American society over the last 100 years, explores the role of Federal government photography in the U.S., and highlights the work of outstanding photographers such as Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and Ansel Adams.

The Archives is uniquely suited to mount such a visual history. Its photography holdings are enormous and varied--in the Washington, D.C., area, there are 9,000,000 photographs in the still picture stacks. In addition, there are 5,000,000 photographs in NARA's presidential libraries and thousands more among the records of its regional records services facilities.

The exhibition depicts many of the momentous events of the century as well as larger social trends. The section on the early 20th century, for example, includes historic photographs of the Wright Brothers' first airplane flight, an early automobile assembly line, and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. From the era of World War I and the 1920s come images of Liberty Loan rallies, suffragettes protesting in front of the White House, and the construction of the Empire State Building. Views of the Great Depression and New Deal include souplines, the effects of the Dust Bowl, public works projects, and portraits of personalities such as Pres. …

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