Rediscovered WPA posters pack a potent visual punch
Imagine if you took today’s best graphic designers and set them to work producing not advertisements or marketing brochures, but propaganda to promote American values. Starting in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, that’s precisely what happened when the federal government tapped the nation’s unemployed commercial artists for the Works Progress Administration poster division. Working out of nearly 20 regional workshops, they designed posters to promote safety, good health, community involvement, and other social values. Workplace safety never looked so good.
Of more than 35,000 poster designs, only a couple thousand have survived, and nearly 500 of them are reproduced in a new book, Posters for the People (Quirk Books, 2008), edited by Ennis Carter. While many of these posters are in the Library of Congress archives, Carter unearthed more than 100 additional images from private collections and regional public archives for the book. Even more images will go online this fall at Carter’s related project, the WPA Living Archive (www.wpalivingarchive.org), which will include all known poster images as well as photographs showcasing the inner workings of the poster division itself.
The posters include a dynamic range of visual styles and approaches. In the early years of the department, when the posters were painted and copied by hand, the aesthetics reflected the individual tastes of the designers. In 1935 Anthony Velonis, an artist trained at New York University’s College of Fine Arts, joined the division. He had been experimenting with silk screen processes, which until then had been used primarily for fabrics and signmaking. He introduced the technique to the poster division in one of the first and broadest artistic experiments with the medium.
More than any artistic vision, the screen print method (along with the period’s ink shortages) helped define the WPA poster aesthetic—one that has shaped virtually all subsequent graphic design. In screen printing, simple and bold graphic images translate better than intricate designs, and the colors are inked in successive layers. Thus, the graphic artists in the poster division honed a style of strong lines, carefully balanced compositions, and judicious placement of spot and secondary colors.
Carter, 42, was working as a young organizer for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group in the late 1980s when she found herself, out of necessity, making her own posters for events and rallies. It was the age of Kinko’s, and Carter mastered the art of photocopy-style guerrilla poster-making. Along the way, she became captivated by the power of graphic design to communicate social messages and gradually shifted the focus of her work in that direction. In 1996 she founded Design for Social Impact, a low-cost graphic design agency for public interest organizations.
When she first discovered the WPA posters, “they just blew my mind,” Carter says. “There was so much parallel to what I was doing as an organizer, and what these WPA guys were doing. I fell in love with the style.”
Eventually, she wound up on eBay, where for $500 she purchased an antifascist poster produced by the division. As she built her own collection, she was surprised at the lack of information regarding the poster division’s history. Apart from the archive at the Library of Congress, there was little to go on. When she got in touch with archive staff to share her growing collection, they expressed little interest. “I asked, ‘Do you want to know about these?’ They politely declined, and I was outraged.”
Ever the activist, she turned her anger into action, launching an ambitious project to digitize all the WPA posters tucked away in historical societies, government subdivisions, and private collections, and to make the images available to the American people, who funded their creation in the first place.
The WPA Living Archive will illustrate the transition in American graphic design from the relatively fussy, intellectual traditions of the early part of the 20th century to the pragmatic modernism that has come to dominate. One needn’t look too hard to see these aesthetics used today to sell software or soft drinks instead of reinforcing social values like civic involvement or good health.
“The idea of values in our country has been co-opted,” Carter says. “It’s important to remember our history of secular, progressive values. When you see a [WPA] poster promoting an amateur roller-derby contest, for example, it says something—it was important for the government to promote this event because it made people happy.” Today, the only analogous imagery in our culture is advertising, Carter says.
Many of the graphic artists who worked in the poster division in fact took their skills into the world of advertising. When World War II came and, with it, better economic times, many WPA programs, including the poster division, were converted to wartime purposes or shut down altogether.
With the demise of the division, much of its work was lost forever. “By the truckload, the posters were dumped,” Carter says. “Even today, if I call up a historical society to ask about WPA posters, they might say, ‘Yeah, we think we have a box in the basement.’ ”