Photography in the Pre-Ironic Age

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday September 27, 2012

Post-war America was a can-do place with a corporate and industrial ethos that created incredible prosperity for much of its citizenry. Upward mobility was a given; the ability of most families to own a car and a home accelerated the growth of suburbia; and consumerism became a top-down American way of life.

It was the right time, and New York City was the right place, for the Eastman Kodak Company to launch the longest-running advertising campaign in history—in Grand Central Terminal. In 1950, Kodak installed the first Colorama there. The 18-by-60-foot back lighted transparencies, billed “the world’s largest photographs,” championed American values and the importance of photography in creating family histories. Now the MTA Transit Museum at Grand Central is presenting a selection of images from the 1960s in the form of 36 prints up to 2 by 6 feet wide in an exhibition prepared by the George Eastman House.


Colorama #312: Herb Archer,Cabin and Canoe, Saddleback Lake, Maine, October 7, 1968. George Eastman House Collection.

Until 1990, when the program ended, 565 images (switched out every three weeks) promoted the “Kodak moment.” In the early years, which this exhibition champions, the Coloramas would generally feature beautiful young, white families engaged in holiday activities, on vacation, and at home—and always with a member of the family taking a photograph with the latest Kodak camera. On balance, men photographed women; women photographed children; children photographed other children; and everyone took a shot at a scenic vista. The central concept of the advertising campaign was that everyone could make a photograph as good as a Colorama, providing Kodak cameras and film were used.


Colorama # 197: Ralph Amdursky,Mother & Child Playing Dolls, displayed January 10-29, 1962. George Eastman House collections.

Presented as candid moments celebrating the best of American life, the Coloramas were anything but candid. Created by a small army of technically stellar, and mostly talented photographers, with a few big names thrown in [Ansel Adams, and Norman Rockwell (as art director) among others], the steps in making a single highly staged and styled image are mind-blowing. In fact, when the company launched the program, the laboratory team was still working out the details of how to process the massive images; an unused swimming pool on the Kodak campus, in Rochester, came to the rescue.

As the program evolved, there was a great deal of competition among the photographers to come up with story ideas that would stretch the limits of photography. Several of the photographers would set out for months at a time, hitting major features of the American landscape, particularly the national parks. In an outdoor scene shot in Grand Teton National Park, hundreds of flashbulbs were set off to ensure that green shrubbery in the foreground of a daylight shot didn’t come out dark in the photograph. In an autumnal scene shot in New England, a rowboat was painted red to create the necessary focal point for a photograph in which men fishing take a picture against a predominately red/orange backdrop of trees. These are scenes of fairly ordinary American activities, but with set design, styling and camera work on an epic scale.


Colorama #299: Herb Archer,Christmas Traditional Skiers, Burke Hollow, Vermont. Displayed December 4-25, 1967. George Eastman House collections.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Colorama photographs is the earnestness of their aesthetics. While pretending to be made within the realm of the family snapshot, they had to assume the idea of reality—all images, in a way, presume that the viewer believes that “the camera never lies.” Nostalgia for present times, lost in the immediate future, is paramount. The Coloramas are tableaux vivants designed to create a consuming desire for what is possibly the only permanence in life: a photographic record. What is ironic today is that the first decade of the Colorama program coincided with the battleground era of the Civil Rights movement. The audience for these images (which were installed only in Grand Central Terminal) was primarily men in grey flannel suits—"Mad Men," among them—rushing to and from jobs in advertising agencies and corporations with little or no comment on the content and meaning of the images.

The Colorama exhibition continues at the MTA Transit Museum Annex, in Grand Central Terminal, through November 1. InformationColorama: The World’s Largest Photographs (Aperture 2004) [for which I was the editor and a contributor], is available at For public programs including a free presentation on October 10 at the New York Public Library/Berger Forum [reservations], and a gallery tour on October 11, visit the Transit Museum website.


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