Friday, October 7, 2016

"The Day In Its Color:" A Technicolor look back at mid-century America

The Day in Its Color introduces readers to Charles Cushman’s extraordinary thirty-year work, an archive of 14,000 Kodachrome photos housed at Indiana University. The photographs, most shot on vivid, color-saturated Kodachrome stock from 1938 to 1969, are the visual record Cushman captured as he travelled constantly, photographing everything he encountered from New York to New Orleans, Chicago to San Francisco.

Cushman, the sometime salesman and non-professional photographer, traveled by auto across US highways before the Interstate system, built in the 1950s, eventually made cross-continental road travel a blur of exit signs and chain restaurants. The result is a chronicle of an era almost never seen in color beyond souvenir postcards and chamber-of-commerce brochures. 
What was America like at mid-century, at city-street level and country-crossroad? As one reviewer of The Day In Its Color expressed it, "Imagine Berenice Abbott or Walker Evans in technicolor." Our collective images of the 1940s, so dominated by black-and-white war photography and dustbowl portraiture, now have a dimension on view in vivid color:  Cushman's photos include portraits and everyday streetscapes, ethnographic studies, agricultural and industrial landscapes, movie sets and media events, children playing, laborers working, all precisely documented in time and place. The result is a chronicle of an era almost never seen or seldom envisioned in color. 

 Charles Cushman, 1939

The book's editor, Eric Sandweiss of Indiana University, selected one hundred fifty images from Cushman's collection. Viewing the original slides and prints was revelatory: in a recent post Sandweiss compares the experience to how people must have felt stepping into the land of Oz in a movie theater in 1939:
Pulling the little Kodachromes out of their slide boxes, I realized how thoroughly the gray shades that, for me, defined America before the late 1950s had, like a theatre scrim, distanced me from the experience of everyday lives lived before my own. Each black and white picture, I realized, reminds you that it is a document — not the thing itself. It pronounces its own pastness before you’ve even made it present. Laid out on the light table, glowing as bright as the room around them, the color slides quickly sucked me into an opposite fallacy: thinking that I was closer to the places pictured within them than I could ever be. “The day in its color,” to quote the poet Wallace Stevens, had come to seem the world itself.
In his archive of images Charles Cushman (1896-1972) preserves mid-century America as a place as vivid as the view out our own window. The collection is all the more remarkable for having gone undiscovered for decades. What makes the photos valuable is the wide range of subjects, landscapes, and moods it captures -- snapshots of America as yet untouched by an overlay of interstate highways, urban renewal, chain stores, and suburban development.

Atlanta, Christmas 1951

America is revealed as a world of hand-painted signs, state fairs, and ramshackle shops, small town living and bustling urban scenes before corporations began to stake claim on every street corner. (Although there were exceptions: Coca-Cola wasn't about to let Atlanta forget its hometown roots, above.) The book also reveals the fascinating and startling life story of the man who stood, unseen, on the other side of the lens, as one of America's most busy amateur photographers. 

To create a now-and-then contrast to Cushman's work, Sandweiss embarked on his own cross-country journey to the same vistas captured in the photographs. In Atlanta, the round Coca-Cola "Neon Spectacular" lit up the foot of Peachtree Street from 1948 to 1981. Today, hotels and office buildings dominate a more demure downtown streetscape, if just as busy. In his recent blog series Sandweiss comments on what has been lost in the intervening 70-plus years of road-travel in the American imagination:

 Tucson Rodeo Day, 1940

Route 66 exists so completely in our literary memories, our imaginations, our online search options, that even the faintest of efforts can serve to satisfy the curiosity that took a man of his generation many years to settle. As with every other aspect of our networked world, such access cuts both ways. While access to information democratizes our ability to fashion a coherent picture of the landscape, it furthers the atomization of our social and spatial selves. 
Locked in our homes, we open Google Maps for a 360-degree view of any square foot of the highway. On our GPS devices and our Mapquest searches, we break down the full experience of travel into a million randomly ranked impressions; “continue west 734.5 miles” takes up less space in our brains than “south 37 feet to unmarked intersection, take a soft right onto eastbound access road.” We know everything and we know nothing about the spaces through which we move.
Clinton Street, Manhattan, 1941

As Sandweiss comments in his post about the photographer as documentarian, "Like most Americans of his day, Charles Cushman was neither preservationist nor modernist. He enjoyed pieces of both past and present, using his camera to assemble a picture of his 'day in its color,' and seldom peering incisively into the shadows of class or race inequality or environmental degradation that lay beneath its surface. Cushman does not ask that we rush to his side in defense of these sites of imminent change, but neither do his pictures suggest confidence that something better awaits. His job (and his real job, at that) was to predict where the market was headed, not to take it there." What we take for granted in our everyday lives always disappears, replaced by some other building, some other idea, some other usefulness: we'd all better have that camera ready.

1 comment:

Joe Wolf said...

Mark - thank you for the excellent review of "The Day In Its Color". Touches on many things that make me happy.