THE faces of the 1930s and 1940s stare out from the imprisonment of the 25,000 photographs. The children with hand-me-down shoes, without socks. The old folks with their clothes too big for their bodies shrunk by age and starvation. The shaky hands with the tin cups. The families around the bare tables.
The pictures show the concerns of the years of the Great Depression: unemployment, poor health, bad luck.
The photographs fill box after gray box on the shelves at the National Archives' still-photo section. They were collected by the Social Security Board to show whom its programs served in the years from the beginning of the Depression to the end of World War II.
The photographers were some of the great names of a vintage age of photography: Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans. The photographs have now been accessioned by the Archives for use by researchers, according to archivist Ed McCarter, who has spent three months organizing the collection. Most of the photographs are poorly documented--only the photographer is known is some cases, but not the location, the subject or the occasion. Nevertheless, most of the photographs speak for themselves:
* The old lady is sitting in a big comfortable chair by a rather grandiose console radio. At first you think, is she one of the lucky ones? To own a radio like that in the 1930s was a big thing. And then you notice her lace-up boots, bulging open over her swollen feet. Her face, with that steady, unseeing, unaware look, shows that she can't really hear that glorious radio. And then you look at the institutional masonry wall behind her. And suddenly you know, it isn't her radio or her chair or her home.
* The White Angel Breadline, winter 1933, is disorganized but not disorderly. The men, sheltered under the hats and caps that all men, even the poorest, wore in those days, are pressing toward the food. You can see the urgency in their backs. One man has turned away. His hat is the worst of the lot--bent, battered and stained, all the life has gone out of the crown, but the brim still has a little stiffening. The old man is tired of waiting for his soup and his piece of bread. He's leaning against the wooden rail, probably easing up on his feet. His hands are clasped in front of him as if the railing was at the foot of an altar. The tin cup is cradled between his arms. He's decided not to try to fill it.
The smaller boy, though he doesn't have a shirt to wear under his overall, has neatly cut hair and a thoughtful look. His father has his hand on the boy's chin, as if wondering how long his cheeks will stay plump and rosy. The older boy already has bones too big for the flesh on his arms. But it's the father who has that skeletal look from months of giving what food there is to the boys. He's sitting on a bed with all the stuffing coming out of the quilt. The walls of the shack are rough boards, certainly home built. It's likely that one boy has just said, "Cheer up, Daddy." And it's also likely, he can't.
* Five little children are standing around a table whose leaves droop with emptiness. The smallest boy stands on a box. None of the children have socks. And the shoes look as though they'd been handed down from one to the other. The father is sitting on the one chair as he shares out the potatoes and cabbage. A note by the photographer says the time was Christmas Day, 1936.
* A young girl with a library book reads to her Aunt Nancy. A caption says the aunt's treasures are a broken glass pitcher full of flower and vegetable seeds, a store-bought broom and a coal oil lamp without a chimney.
* In Charleston, S.C., six Indian children sit in a small schoolhouse, they have chairs, but no desks or books. In another picture, children are having a school lunch--saltines and jelly.
* Not all the pictures are sad. The men on park benches look grateful for their pipes, the sun and the free seats. An elderly couple with a piano and a bird cage in the background play Chinese checkers. Another woman in a fine clean apron, made from a flower-printed flour sack, takes a small bag of groceries from her smiling husband. A well-dressed older woman on the doorstep of a neat brick home, takes her mail (a Social Security check?) from the smiling mailman.
Other times, other lives, the same problems of life and death.