5.08.2010

Shadows in living color

Images from top: Pearl Street and Peck Slip, October 7, 1942
Drink cart near the Battery, October, 1942
Wartime salvage, October 4, 1942
58 Mulberry Street
South East corner of First Street and the Bowery (and the same corner today in a desultory view from Google maps)
Charles Weever Cushman (1896–1972), dedicated amateur photographer, bequeathed approximately 14,500 Kodachrome color slides to his alma mater, Indiana University. The resulting Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection of the Indiana University Archives is a meticulously documented online repository (you can read the grant proposal, peruse online scans of Cushman's notebooks, find out about Charles, or read about the color restoration process).
Amassed by Cushman during a thirty-two year period from 1938 to 1969, the slides document a dizzying array of subjects, in part: fires, floods, train wrecks, train yards, harbors, street vendors, street scenes, churches, synagogues, saloons, advertisements, the steel industry, mining, ghost towns, farms, urban slums, mule auctions, and the filming of B movies. What particularly interested me were the shots of New York, many of which are from the early forties. Nearly all the images are preserved in uncanny, vivid color.
 
Kodachrome, the first modern color film, was introduced in 35mm still camera format in 1936. It reproduced a more natural color than earlier color processes, and nothing like it in photography had been seen before. Revolutionary as it was, Kodachrome would not come into popular use until after World War II. Cushman, however, began shooting with Kodachrome as early as 1938. In 1938 there were still Civil War veterans alive. In the 1942 of the Pearl Street image at top, the nineteenth century was only as distant in time as the Summer of Love (1967) is to us. It was still hanging on—in buildings not yet cleared by urban redevelopment, in horse-drawn work carts—and Cushman captured it's last shadows in color.
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ADDENDUM  I've come across Dino's NYC in which the author seeks to update the Charles Cushman views of New York (there are only 150 or so)! He's got some great information about the Pearl Street image in particular and it's definitely worth a visit. Be prepared, though, that it's a dirge-like procession of former streetscapes— however trash-strewn or gritty— turned to parking lots, off-ramps and highrises.

In an old post I featured this detail of a 1912 photograph of Elizabeth Street, which I colorized in Photoshop. I think one reason the past becomes so foreign, so removed, is that we so often see it in black and white. As if the past were a different dimension. The Past: some time disconnected from my existence. The monochrome abstracts the subject, creates an artistic chiaroscuro— but leaches the immediacy from the scene. How I wish I could see the nineteenth century in full color!

1 comment:

Liza said...

Me too! I want to see it in color too. And I agree that because of black and white photography we see that-rather short- era as another dimension.

Great collection!

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