TVA in Color

Alfred T. Palmer's remarkable color transparencies of TVA in the early 1940s

In 1935, the Farm Security Administration sent out a team of photographers across the U.S. (as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) to record the lives of working men and women. For the next nine years, they traveled to rural farming areas and then later to factories and railroads as the country mobilized for World War II; they aimed their cameras at farm laborers, industrial workers, and (most famously) Rosie the Riveter. While many of these well-known photos were in black and white, the FSA (which became the Office of War Information in 1942) also requisitioned a series of color transparencies starting in 1939, eventually gathering some 1,600 images that bring the era to full, living color.

The head photographer for the OWI was Alfred T. Palmer, who was appointed by President Roosevelt. Palmer had a strong background in industrial photography, having been the official photographer for the United States Merchant Marine and later for major shipping lines. Thousands of Palmer's photos of the war effort were published at the time in major newspapers and magazines—and with their iconic imagery, it's no wonder why. Palmer's composition, lighting, and color balance are remarkable; his photos often look more like Hollywood movie stills than moments captured from real life, and were no doubt meant to inspire people in difficult times.

Palmer took on the assignment of photographing the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the results are an amazing document of life and work at TVA in the early 1940s. (The only other Tennessee subjects he photographed were an airplane assembly line at Vultee Aircraft in Nashville and a ship boiler construction unit at Combustion Engineering in Chattanooga.) And since these photos were paid for by U.S. taxpayers, they are also free to anyone to enjoy (or publish). The Library of Congress has posted a large selection of Palmer's color TVA photos (as well as many of his and other FSA/OWI photographers' shots) online at Flickr.com. (See Related Links in the right-hand column.)