Photographs and Graphic Works in Washington, DC Area, Selected Topics

Military Subjects

The Still Picture component of the Special Media Archives Services Division holdings include several thousand Civil War-era photographs taken by Mathew Brady and his associates. These images, while perhaps the best known military photographs in the branch, represent only a small percentage of the number of pictorial records that document the involvement of the United States in armed confrontations. Military images cover the period of the French and Indian War through the Vietnam War and include extensive coverage of the U.S. military in the last four major conflicts (World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam). Most of the photographs are found in the records of U.S. military services: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

War photography, however, is not the sole focus of the military holdings. The records of the aforementioned services and their many bureaus and commands also include thousands of photographs recording even the most mundane functions necessary to support the Armed Forces in war and peace. Pictures of recruits and enlistees, training programs, forts, bases, camps and schools, administrative and support services, ceremonies, uniforms and insignia, ordnance (artillery, tanks, ships, aircraft, atomic weapons, and other armaments), yards and docks, tests, maintenance services, communications, medical care, and recreational activities are examples of the many topics covered.

Civilian agency records, particularly for the World War II period, are often excellent sources for combat photography and photographs on other military subjects. For example, the Office of War Information files contain thousands of images documenting life on the home front and Allied combat operations during World War II.

Natural Resources and the Environment

Many federal agencies in the course of carrying out their missions were or are to some extent involved in the management of the natural resources of the nation. Examples of such interests are photographs of river and harbor improvement projects undertaken by the Corps of Engineers; images of western lands taken by Timothy O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, John K. Hillers, and others during 19th-century topographical and geological surveys; and photographs, including over 200 by Ansel Adams, of National Park Service areas.

The files of the Department of Agriculture and its bureaus contain pictures of farming and ranching activities and conservation and reclamation projects. Images relating to forest management are in Forest Service records and pictures of mining operations are among the records of the Bureau of Mines and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation. Fish and Wildlife Service pictures record a variety of subjects. Among them are images of marine life, birds, mammals and other animals, and plants. Also included are topographical studies of areas in the United States and in several foreign countries.

The government's concerns about environmental conditions are documented in the records of the Environmental Protection Agency, which contain images showing the effects of noise, air, and water pollution and pollution control measures. Many of the pictures were taken for DOCUMERICA, a program sponsored by the agency in the 1970s to produce photographic documentation of environmental subjects throughout the United States.

Photographs and Graphic Works, College Park


Over 17,000 posters are included in the Still Picture component of the Special Media Archives Services Division holdings. The bulk of the posters were produced during the two World Wars and are found in the records of military organizations and civilian agencies supporting the war effort. Posters from the Office of Naval Records and Library publicize a variety of themes relating to World War I, while posters from the Office of Government Reports provide similar general coverage for World War II. Posters with themes such as promoting or advertising conservation of products and resources needed for the war and the greater production of goods and war materiel are generally found in the records of civilian agencies such as the U.S. Food Administration, War Production Board, Office of War Information, and Office of Price Administration. Posters produced by the armed services typically relate to recruitment during both wartime and peacetime. Sources for these posters include the files of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), Bureau of Naval Personnel, and U.S. Army commands.

Still Picture holdings also incorporate a sizeable number of posters publicizing government peacetime and nonmilitary programs and subjects. Examples of these are Peace Corps recruitment posters, National Park Service public parks advertisements, the Forest Service Smokey Bear fire prevention posters, U.S. Postal Service postage stamp promotions, and posters publicizing Treasury Department war and savings bonds.

Science and Technology

Photographic records relating to scientific and technological development are found in a number of government files. Images document the testing and fabrication of military hardware in Navy and Army ordnance bureau records; hydrographic and seismographic studies conducted by the Coast and Geodetic Survey; measurement technology and standards research carried out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology; meteorological and atmospheric observations of the Weather Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; biological and pharmacological research conducted by the Food and Drug Administration; and aeronautical and aerospace research undertaken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA records are a rich source of photographs showing in detail a variety of airplanes, rockets, and spacecraft.

Photographs and Graphic Works, College Park

Social Programs

The Still Picture component of the Special Media Archives Services Division also maintains photographs that document the implementation and impact of programs initiated by the federal government to address various social ills and issues. For example, Bureau of Indian Affairs files contain photographs documenting numerous programs directed toward Native Americans.

The earliest social documentary photographs in Still Picture holdings are pictures of child laborers taken by Lewis Hine from 1908 to 1912 in the records of the Children's Bureau. Photographs taken by various New Deal agencies include the largest number of images of government social programs. These photographs document the many programs created to ameliorate, through public employment and economic security projects, the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Work Projects Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, and the Social Security Administration are some of the agencies established during this period whose records are in the branch.

The federal government's interests in social issues continued after World War II. Survey photographs taken by Russell Lee for the Coal Mines Administration and those taken for a later study conducted in 1979 by the President's Commission on Coal record the working and living conditions of miners.

Photographs and Graphic Works, College Park

Excerpted from: General Information Leaflet 38: Information for Prospective Researchers About the Still Picture Branch of the National Archives (rev. 1994)