New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 34 October 24 to 30, 2012

Big Color Back in the Day

Colorama
Don Burmeister
Saturday Night Family Bath by Lee Howick. Source: courtesy George Eastman House
Lee Howick, "Saturday Night Family Bath" c 1964

Today Grand Central Terminal is a highly polished, light filled experience, one of the architectural gems of New York City. Hard to imagine that from the 1940’s to the late 1980’s the station was much darker and dirtier––more of a home for the homeless than a home for an Apple store. Part of the reason was the huge East facing windows on the main floor had been painted over during World War II and never cleaned afterwards. The station was grand, but always a bit dodgy too. In this dim environment Eastman Kodak, one of the leading technology companies at that time, proposed installing huge lighted advertisements on the east balcony overlooking the main concourse. (This, in fact, is the exact spot that is now an Apple store, minus the newly built marble stairway. – note to Apple: sic transit gloria.)

Thus Colorama was born. Sixty feet wide and eighteen feet tall, these back-illuminated photographs, made by taping together dozens of strips of 18 inch wide Ektachrome positive transparency film, were the largest photographs in the world. From 1950 through 1980 Kodak produced and displayed more than 300 giant images. Some of them topical - Man Lands on the Moon – but many more with the pre-post-modernist twist of being photographs about making photographs.

The current show, put together by the George Eastman House, is a bit more modest in scale. Tucked away under the west balcony in the New York Transit Museum Annex, it has a few dozen prints from 1960 to 1968 (not transparencies,) each measuring about 4 feet across. The placards for the show mention Ernst Haas, Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter, but none of them seemed to have made the final cut for this show. Instead we get a range of travel and family-occasioned photographs that look, well, just like advertisements for Kodak cameras and film.

Mother and Child Playing Dolls by Ralph Amdursky. Source: nytimes.com
Ralph Amdursky, "Mother and Child Playing Dolls" c.1962

There is the picture of Macchu Picchu, a camera toting model overlooking the scene. We see the Grand Tetons being photographed, as well as Olympic Park, Yosemite and a Portuguese fishing village thrown in for fun. The curators resisted the urge to camp up the show, but Neil Montanus’ 1967 “Discotheque” wins the prize for the most hapless: a few dozen well spaced dancing teenagers looking dazed after an afternoon’s shopping spree at the Rochester JC Penny.

Amidst the photographs of happy family vacations and model-filled ski trips there are a few interesting pictures for contemporary viewers. One, “Mother and Child Playing Dolls” by Ralph Amdursky shows a mom photographing her young daughter playing in a miniature kitchen set. This is more than a decade before Laurie Simmons throws the doll to the floor to begin her “Early Color Interiors” series.

By far, though, the most bizarre image selected is Lee Howick’s, “Saturday Night Family Bath.” Here we see weird Uncle Jake taking even more pictures of his two prepubescent nieces as they “fool around” in the tub in his suspiciously well-lit bathroom. Now just imagine it sixty feet long!

The scale of the images certainly was an important component of the Colorama experience, but the gleaming concourse sure looks a whole lot better today This is a show that will fill a few moments of waiting time at the station, but if you have only 20 minutes, I would choose instead the clam chowder at the Oyster Bar, still just as good as in the Colorama days.


Colorama


New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex
Grand Central Terminal Shuttle Passage
Midtown         Map

212 878 0106
mta.info/mta/museum/

Saturday, July 28 to
Monday, October 29, 2012
Hours: Mon-Fri 8 to 8, Sat, Sun, 10 to 6
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