Photographic History Collection: Carl Mydans

Photographic History Collection: Carl Mydans

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The Carl Mydans Collection at the National Museum of American History consists of 166 photographs that span the years from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, and two Halliburton camera cases that contain all his photographic equipment. The photographs include the rural images created as part of his work for the Farm Secretary Administration and those taken while on assignment for LIFE magazine. In the mid-1930s, one of his photo essays sent him to Texas, where he covered cattle drives in the Big Bend, the oil boomtown of Freer and “brushhogs,” migratory workers who lived by the side of the road. A few years later, he completed the series on “sandhogs,” construction workers who built the Midtown Tunnel under the East River in New York City.
During the 1940s, he recorded the events of the Second World War, mainly in the Pacific theater. Once the war ended, he was sent to Bikini Island Atoll, an island chain in the Pacific that is part of the Marshall Islands chain. There he documented the evacuation of the people of Bikini from their home island in order to clear the way for major atomic testing, and the Bikinians' exodus to nearby Rongerik. The rest of the collection includes portraits of major political, military, and literary figures, such as Winston Churchill, General MacArthur and William Faulkner. Carl Mydans was a storyteller. Always seeking the drama and history of a moment, his pictures are meant to recount a story with no words.
Carl Mydans was born in Boston on May 20, 1907. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, after which he went on to work as a free-lance writer for the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe. While a staff writer for the American Banker, Mydans began to carry a miniature camera on his assignments. In 1935, he carried a camera full time, joining the photographic unit of the Resettlement Administration, which merged into the Farm Security Administration in 1937. Under the supervision of Roy Stryker, a group of photographers—composed of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evens, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans, among others—was sent on assignment to make a difference by reporting and documenting the plight of the poor farmer. Their task was to create a “pictorial history” of agriculture and focus on those most affected by the Great Depression. The photographers would tour the nation and interpret it through the shape of the land and the faces of the unemployed, the migrant farmers, and the sharecroppers. During this time, Mydans documented cotton production in the southeastern states, the impoverished dwellings of New England, and the creation of new “greenbelt towns” or government-sponsored planned communities.
In 1936, Mydans left the FSA and was hired by the newly established LIFE magazine. One of his first assignments for LIFE was a photo essay on Texas, focusing mainly on the oil boomtown of Freer. It was also at this time that he met Shelley Smith, a LIFE researcher and journalist whom he married the following year. Once World War II broke out, the couple was sent to Europe as a reporter-photographer team. At first they went to England, covering London under siege, then to Sweden, and then to Finland, where Mydans had his first combat experience. The couple later traveled to Italy to cover Fascism, to France to witness its defeat, to Pearl Harbor to photograph American naval operations, and then to China.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor occured, Carl and his wife were in Manila, the Philippines. Early in 1942, the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese and the couple was imprisoned. After almost nine months of captivity, they were moved from Santo Tomas University—an internment camp for civilians—to Shanghai. On December 1943, the couple, along with 1,400 American and Canadian citizens, was repatriated. Although Mydans was unable to cover the war, he was grateful to have survived and continue to watch and photograph all the events that encompassed his life.
Soon after his return to the States, he was sent back to the European front. In 1944, he accompanied Allied forces to Italy where he covered the campaigns in Monte Cassino and Rome. After Italy, Mydans traveled to Marseilles to cover the fighting in southern France. Following the liberation of France, he was rushed back to the South Pacific to rejoin Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his triumphant return to the Philippines. Three weeks after the invasion of Luzon, Mydans took part in the charge into Manila—which concluded with the liberation of the remaining 4,000 civilian captives in Santo Tomas—alongside the 8th Cavalry Regiment. Months later, on September 2, 1945, Mydans was one of the few privileged photojournalists to be present at the site of the official Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri.
After the Second World War, the Mydans took up residence in Tokyo, where he worked as chief editor of the TIME-LIFE news bureau. During those years, he captured the earthquake at Fukui, the Communist Revolution in China, and the war in Korea. In 1950, while on a trip to New York, Mydans received word of the outbreak of the Korean war. It only took him ten days to get himself shipped back into battle. Later that year, he received a Gold Achievement Award from U.S. Camera for his coverage of the Korean conflict. After the war, Mydans completed assignments in England, Berlin, and Russia, and traveled to Vietnam in 1968 to do a story on refugees. After the closing of LIFE, he continued to work as a photojournalist with TIME magazine, and wrote books based on his experiences at war. Mydans died on August 16, 2004.
Object Name
Carl Mydans Collection
Mydans, Carl
ID Number
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Work and Industry: Photographic History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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