Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography. Hit the Listen to this Article button to follow along with the story.
Of all things, potatoes are probably one of the most boring photography subjects. But they’re incredibly important. There are many documents in the CIA’s database talking about potatoes, harvesting, potato alcohol, and even introducing pests to other countries. But the very perplexing documents are all about Kodachrome transparencies of potatoes. Why would this matter? We’re curious, and we find beauty in the mysterious question. Could someone have just been really bored and wanted to photograph potatoes? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer. We dug deep into the records too. But the entire exchange is pretty weird.
Before we go on, I need to be incredibly clear. I don’t have definitive answers to this. I’m putting documents together that I’ve found in the CIA’s history. The Declassified series follows how the CIA was using photography. And there’s a lot of it. But this specific topic came to us while looking at Kodachrome research in their database. That lead us to their data on potatoes. Going further down the rabbit hole, we were able to piece bits of data together. So all of this is a hypothesis, and I don’t have concrete evidence of it. We invite you to research it yourself. Lots of hyperlinks are provided through the piece for you to understand where we’re coming from. Most importantly, we’re just giving you an interesting story. Again though, we can’t make definitive conclusions. It’s not also our intent to cause xenophobia.
In 1954, there’s was a presentation for Kodachrome Transparencies. The subject was the potatoes. Specifically, the document details that the transparencies were available for a 30-day loan. The report itself talks about the potatoes at various stages. We’re not sure if they grew over a specific time, or the slides were all of the same potatoes. Alternatively, they could be various potatoes planted at different times. All of them would, of course, be at different stages. How does this make sense? We’re not sure.
We did some searching for “Kodachrome Potatoes” in the CIA’s database. A few documents came up. Some of them were about the details of images taken from trips to Bangkok, China, etc. There’s this really amazing document in that search about fallout shelters too.
We switched the search to “Potatoes” and got many different results. Looking at documents from the 1950s, we found that there was a problem with potato growth. And there were issues involving the Colorado Potato Beetle. This is a pretty nasty bug. The Russians accused American Imperialists of bringing larvae to the USSR. The bugs can live for months without food. And they’re incredibly hardy. This would destroy their crop, weaken their economy, and make them rely on other nations for potatoes. Similar things have been happening here in the US. Have you heard about murder hornets? Or odd seeds coming from China?
The US knew about the beetles for a while. In the 1930s, they apparently hit France. In 1950, there’s a report about them too, but it’s not very legible. Research outside of the CIA’s documents lead us to a BBC article. According to the piece, East Germany accused the US of dropping the beetles across the nation. The accusation came in 1950. But all of the research in the CIA’s database we found came around 1954. Calvin University has some information that shows they were called “Yankee Beetles.”
Deeper digging into the archives found lots of research on potato beetles and the potatoes themselves. We didn’t find any photos of the beetles, though. So our belief is that the Kodachrome slides were used to study the potatoes. They were probably references for research. This, along with the studies of the Russian factory farming machinery in the archives, was very interesting to the CIA. Combine this with other photographic evidence of the Russians studying potatoes, and you have yourself a possible trade war. The dates in all these documents are lining up pretty perfectly.
So did the US actually plant the beetles in Europe? We’re not sure. But the photos all show that this was a huge concern.
Lead photo by Renoir Gaither with Creative Commons Commercial Permissions. Image of the Colorado Potato Beetle from the U.S. Department of Agriculture