PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It was during a lunch break more than 30 years ago that Jim Pontarelli starting combing through the Dust Bowl photographs.
He was an aide to then-Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee with what he called a "secret ambition" to become a photographer. So the Narragansett resident would hole up at the Library of Congress whenever he could, pulling pictures that documented the worst ecological disaster ever to strike the U.S — through the face of a migrant mother with her children huddled against her, through abandoned farms, through the dunes of dirt. He bought some of the old equipment the photographers had used to make those pictures, built a darkroom in his basement and became a student of their ways.
Pontarelli's work took him away from photography and into communications, but the images would return in a way he never considered. For the past 3½ years, drawing on his decades-old knowledge of that photo collection, the 54-year-old has been helping award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns on a documentary about the Dust Bowl. The two-part series is set to air Sunday and Monday on PBS.
"It was not just the photos, but it was the people in the photos, it was the individuals and the families and the stories that they represented that really hooked me on that body of work," said Pontarelli, president of RDW Group, a communications agency headquartered in Providence.
Burns said Pontarelli was a critical part of the research and brought thoughtfulness and sophistication to his countless hours of work.
"We're just still shaking our heads in awe," Burns said.
Pontarelli came to know Burns through fundraising he and a colleague were doing for historical Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where the filmmaker had interned while attending Hampshire College.
Burns mentioned he was working on a project on the Dust Bowl, and Pontarelli told him about his knowledge of the Farm Security Administration collection, a pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944 that depicts the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Burns, who has made films on such topics as baseball, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Civil War, draws heavily from historical still photographs in his works.
"He signed me up and said: You help pull the photographs for that special," Pontarelli recalled. "I jumped at the opportunity."
As an unpaid research associate for the film, Pontarelli spent weeks cataloging all the Dust Bowl images available, then made four trips to Washington to sift through some 1,200 to 1,500 pictures. The first time he went back, he found the filing cabinets just as they were all those years ago. He knew just where to go, and in some cases what images he was looking for.
The most famous one, "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange, shows the worried face of a 32-year-old mother of seven, in a lean-to tent in Nipomo, Calif., her children clinging to her. Lange said years later the mother had told her she had been living on frozen vegetables from the fields and birds killed by her children; she just sold the tires off her car to buy food.
While it was his love of photography that drew him to the collection, Pontarelli realized he found more to the work than that. Partway through production of the film, he started a master's program at Rhode Island College in social work, something he intends to pursue as a retirement career. He has spent time at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, studying audio documentary techniques, which he hopes to incorporate into his social work. He notes that social work and documentary-making are both about helping people understand "their own narratives."
While Pontarelli hasn't touched his camera in years — all the pictures he takes now are with his smartphone — what he learned from the Dust Bowl images stayed with him.
"You look at each one, you can't help but stare into the faces of these people," he said.