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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Photographic Portraits

In a letter sent on April 14, 1937, the associate director of the Federal Writers Project, George Cronyn, asked state project directors to provide portraits of the ex-slaves being interviewed by FWP workers:

We would like to have portraits wherever they can be secured, but we urge your photographers to make the studies as simple, natural, and “unposed” as possible. Let the background, cabin or whatnot, be the normal setting – in short just the picture a visitor would expect to find by “dropping in” on one of these old-timers.

From “Administrative Files,” image 16

  • Why might it have been extremely difficult for the interviewers to take “natural” or “unposed” photographs?
  • Why do you think the FWP wanted such photographs, rather than more formal portraits?
  • Which of the two portraits shown above is more “natural.” What characteristics make it appear more natural (even though it was posed)?  Examine several portraits from the collection by browsing the photographs by subject.  Choose the portrait that you think comes closest to being “natural” or “unposed.” Do you respond differently to this portrait than to ones in which the subject looks stiff, posed, or uncomfortable? Explain your answer.

Look at several newspapers and magazines. Do the photographs that accompany interviews look natural or posed? Why might a photographer or editor choose a formal portrait? An informal portrait?