I was looking for something on the wonderful National Archives website—now I forget what—when I came across these photos of child laborers.
I’ve written before of my interest in archival photographs, and about my fascination with forgotten people, people who have lived and died and are now—lost to history.
And here at the National Archives, a whole trove of forgotten children.
The photos were taken for the National Child Labor Committee between 1908 and 1912 by Lewis Hine. They are just amazing—pictures of a lost world, filled with lost people.
What scary photos! these poor kids, doing hard work that would kill me if I even tried to do it. The moments of interrupted narrative that are captured here—what is going on? Who are these people? What happened to them? I'll never know: the people are gone, though their images live on to haunt me....
National Child Labor Committee photographs
National Child Labor Committee
Lewis Wickes Hine
Spinners in a textile mill
I really love these photographs. No up or down about it.
I came across them when searching through public
photo archives for work I could use for the cover of my book, Long Time Ago Good—and from first glance I was wholly captivated. They’re the work of Marc St. Gil, who produced them for the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Documerica Project.
Documerica hired 100 or so photographers to document the American environment of the mid-1970s. Over 15,000 photos were taken for the project, and every one I look at I find consistently amazing and astonishing and miraculous. I can—and have—lost hours staring into the computer screen, connecting with this past world, or trying to….
Though the project as a whole covered the entire US, I’ve concentrated on St. Gil’s Texas pictures. They really fit well with the stories in my book.
Who are these kids? What happened to them? There is an intense mystery here in these images that totally captures my heart…they're part of the great forgotten....
I don’t just love the photos—I love these people, too. I hope they’re all alive and well and happy….
In addition to the book cover, I used a series of these St. Gil photos to make a trailer for Long Time Ago Good:
As I mentioned in an earlier post, this was the original shot for the book cover….
Which became this….
When I completed my story collection, Long Time Ago Good, the publisher generously allowed me to have a lot of input of the design and look of the book, including the cover. When he asked for suggestions, I looked around my favorite photo archives, searching for Texas photos, and I found several shots I liked at the Library of Congress/NARA site, including the photo to the left.
It’s an aerial shot of the Lakeway resort development west of Austin, on the shores of Lake Travis, as it looked when under construction. Taken around 1971, the photo shows paths that have been bulldozed through the cedars, paths that would become streets.
I thought—think—it a wonderful photograph that fits with the overall tone of the book, especially the Hemingway epigraph, “Long time ago good. Now no good.”
The publisher didn’t think so. “Nobody will know what that is,” he said.
I pointed out that it also sort of looked like a computer chip. That’s pretty cool, right?
The publisher still didn’t like it.
So I went to cover photo number two, which came from the same series of Texas photos. Showing an unfortunate armadillo under attack by a dog, it also visually depicts the theme of the book.
The armadillo was the symbol of old Austin. Old Austin is gone, torn to pieces and gone elsewhere, and transformed into something…new….
I cropped the photo down to make the cover, of course. Here’s the original shot:
Omitting the guy holding the armadillo makes a difference. The photo itself is violent; showing the guy expands the violence to include cruelty. But perhaps that would have been more thematically appropriate? Don’t know. The dillo, dog, and guy are all certainly dead by now, and the old city is gone, but they all still make me think.
Coming soon: the forgotten photographer who made these images…..
So, just a day after I posted my bit on photo archives, poet Jill Alexander Essbaum shared a link on Facebook of a wonderful series of pictures from the Library of Congress she found at the Denver Post’s photoblog….These photos are in color, and it's that color gives these photos for me at least a dreamlike—even nightmarish—quality, a surreal familiarity that in the end feels really, really disturbing. I know this world—I knew people who actually grew up in this world—but it’s not the world we know now. At all. As always, I’m left looking at the faces and wondering who these people were, and what happened to them….
A number of years ago I was working in the accounting office of a big law firm in downtown Austin, and one day, as I was getting out of my car in the park-and-ride parking lot, I saw a Polaroid photograph mashed into the damp gravel. An interesting photograph: a pair of young women—one slightly older than the other, but both young—hugging a pair of little boys. They all look Hispanic. One of the young women is wearing something resembling a red tutu. I wondered: who are these people?I took the picture with me to work, and posted it on the wall above my cube. Later the tech guy came by my desk, sipping at his coffee, and he asked, “Who are they?”“That’s my family,” I said. The tech guy looked shocked. Then he said, “Wow, they’re beautiful.”They are indeed. And, by now, they really are my family. I don’t know who they were then, or what was going when the shot was taken. I don’t know what they were like, or what happened to them. They’re forgotten—except by me.I have these same sort of weird feelings when I look at other old photos. I can burn hours going through online photo archives (these hours aren’t lost, by the way—my imagination is working the whole time, and that’s part of my job as a writer and a teacher). The other day I was helping a friend look for pictures of cats to illustrate a book he’s doing of cat essays, and the afternoon passed with my eyes in the archive, looking at cats, but other things, too. Pictures of the forgotten, mostly—people who existed at one time, but now don’t, and are forgotten despite images stuck away somewhere.I love the little girl with the cat in the Dorothea Lange photo above. Who is she—what’s she thinking? Seems darn proud of that pretty cat. And what’s with that kid peering out the window? Who are these people—and what happened to them? We’ll never know. They’re forgotten.The forgotten inhabit books, too, of course. Years ago I went to a lecture given by Ian Frazier, who talked of doing research for his book Great Plains. He said he’d go into a rare book collection at a university and look at the hundreds and hundreds of settler memoirs on the shelves, each one inhabited by a ghost who would leap out and grab him by the throat and say “Let me tell you about my life!”The photos are like that, too. Images of the forgotten who want—who demand!—to tell you about their lives.My favorite archives:The Shorpy Historic Photo Archive
National Archives and Records Administration
Diane Keaton has put together some interesting books of photos she’s taken from archives, including Local News, Bill Woods’ Business, and Still Life. In 2007, Larry McMurtry wrote an appreciation of Keaton’s work for the New York Review of Books, and he talks quite a bit about the concept of the forgotten....