"The Day in Its Color": Pictures of a Lost Continent
In 1938, erstwhile businessman Charles Cushman snapped an image of the Golden Gate Bridge using the relatively new Kodachrome color film. It would be the first of over 14,000 frames of indelible Americana--people, urban scenes, and landscapes--that he would capture over a 30-year cross-country odyssey.
Unlike Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson, who chose similar subject matter to wide acclaim, Cushman was by no means considered an artist or professional, for no larger reason than that nobody knew who he was. Besides, color photogaphy had something of a gauche reputation in the higher-minded circles. Cushman was doing this for himself, and he was so far underground that his collection was only recently "discovered" and archived when he donated his photographs to Indiana University, his alma mater. (See Vivian Maier for another recently celebrated amateur "street photographer.")
The Day in Its Color (Oxford University Press) serves as a companion piece to the Cushman archives, a collection of over 150 color prints contextualized with commentary on setting, period, and photographic equipment and technique. And it is fascinating, not only for the beautiful frankness of the portraits and street-life shots, but for the way the reproductions of the super-saturated photographs breathe reality into images of a truly vanished world. A shot of a rickety "confectionary cart" in the muddy streets of Chicago (surely a predecessor to Windy City "street cheese") would look pre-industrial if not for the color, while a 1939 portrait of Cushman himself at the rim of the Grand Canyon (dressed for leisure in a suit, fedora, and a remarkably short tie) gives you an idea what Sam Spade might look like on vacation. It's occasionally jarring, like seeing color footage of World War II for the first time.
But beyond the archaic curiousity of the set, Cushman knew what he wanted from his camera, and the best shots speak to an opportunistic readiness to capture the ephemeral moments of a rapidly vanishing culture. Select images from the book, including the ones described above, are available after the jump.