Picturing the Century


Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island... the Wright Brothers's first flight... building the Empire State Building... a Depression-era soup line... Omaha Beach... the mushroom cloud... Lyndon Johnson taking the Presidential oath... a young marine in Da Nang... footprints on the Moon... war in the Persian Gulf...

Old photographs are time machines. They allow us to look back in history, freeze a moment in time, and imagine ourselves as part of the past. Through historic photographs we can see how famous and ordinary folk appeared in both posed and unguarded moments. We can relive great events and everyday life in exquisite detail. We can learn how people dressed and carried themselves and sometimes judge their moods. Studying photographs helps us imagine what it was like when the first airplane took off, when a landing craft ramp fell open on D-day, or when the first person stepped onto the Moon.

The events of the 20th century have been captured in billions of photographs. Some of these are so familiar that they have come to stand for an event in its entirety. Others surprise us with their beauty, power, or original point of view. To commemorate the 20th century, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) presents a selection of historic photographs from its vast and varied holdings. While no exhibit can comprehensively cover the events of the last 100 years, the National Archives is uniquely suited to mount such a visual history. Its still photography holdings are enormous and varied; in the Washington, DC, area alone they consist of 9 million photographs in the still picture stacks, 9 million aerial photographs among cartographic records, and thousands of photos interfiled with textual records. In addition, there are millions of photographs in its Presidential libraries and thousands more among the records of its regional records services facilities.

The photos shown here depict many momentous events of the century, but they also represent the hopes and fears of the American people.

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