Kodachrome and FSA Housing

The contributions of Catherine Bauer’s photograph collection to the study of public housing in the United States in the 1930s are easily overlooked in light of what many scholars agree was one of her greatest achievements: her gathering of support for the bill that became the Housing Act of 1937. This success helped Bauer to win a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and return to Europe for further study. In 1939, however, her research trip was cut short by the events of World War II. Back in the United States, Bauer accepted an invitation to teach at UC Berkeley in the spring semester of 1940 with the hopes of conducting what she referred to as “field-work” in Oakland and San Francisco.[1]

In 1942, Mills College invited Bauer to teach one of their now-famous summer courses. At Mills, Bauer not only projected slides of housing on a screen in the classroom but also took photographs while on a field trip with her students to a Farm Security Administration camp in Ceres. She used what would become her film of choice: Kodak’s 35-millimeter color film, introduced to the market in 1936 as Kodachrome.

Catherine Bauer’s Kodachrome slides are among the first color photographs of FSA housing in California made for the study of housing design. Although the FSA (or Resettlement Administration, as it was called from 1935 to 1937) sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee to photograph the Western Region housing developments, when looking back on the period FSA architect Vernon DeMars mourned the overall lack of positive public promotion: “There was an information division in the [Rural Resettlement Administration] office, about three people or so. […] When we began to get a good number of sizable projects going and so forth, none of this achievement was ever mentioned. They were trying to show how bad things were, not that there was anything being done about them.”[2] Bauer’s Kodachromes add new layers to historians’ understanding of the photographic production and pedagogical practices surrounding FSA housing projects.



[1] Catherine Bauer to President Sproul, October 26, 1939. In box 1, folder “Letters Written by Catherine (Bauer) Wurster, 1939–1940,” Catherine Bauer Wurster papers, BANC MSS 74/163 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[2] Vernon DeMars, “A Life in Architecture: Indian Dancing, Migrant Housing, Telesis, Design for Urban Living, Theater, Teaching,” interview by Suzanne Riess in 1988 and 1989, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992, 82, https://oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt938nb53j&query=&brand=oac4.



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