Michael Bierut | Essays


Colorama #234: Saturday Night Bath, Lee Howick, February, 1964

We moved to the suburbs in 1984. It was my wife's idea. After only four years in Manhattan, I was resistant to the idea of retreating to a place like the subdivision I had grown up in, so I insisted to Dorothy that we move to Westchester County. There were two reasons. First, I had the idea, based mostly on my obsessive reading of John Cheever, that Westchester possessed some kind of literary superiority to, say, New Jersey or Long Island. Second, I wanted desperately to commute every day through Grand Central Terminal.

The main concourse of Grand Central is New York's great indoor room. When it opened in 1913, architects Warren & Wetmore's building was hailed as an engineering marvel and a "temple to transportation." But by 1984 it was dark, dirty, and marred with advertising. Sticky trash was stuck in every corner. Homeless people slept in its subterranean passages. And looming above it all, blocking the main hall's east windows, presiding over its tumult no less than West Egg's Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, was the Colorama, the massive backlit billboard that its creator, Eastman Kodak, trumpeted as the World's Largest Color Photograph.

The first Colorama was installed in 1950. It was eighteen feet high and sixty feet wide. According to Colorama, a new book from Aperture, the backlit transparencies required over a mile of cold-cathode tubes to illuminate. The image changed every month; eventually there would be a total of 565 Coloramas deployed in Grand Central. The president was Harry Truman when the first went up, and it would be George H. Bush when the last one came down. The images, however, did not directly reflect a changing America, but rather gently refracted it through a hazy lens of unironic, idealized nostalgia that today seems absolutely eerie.

The subject, again and again, is the American family at leisure, picnicking, playing, sightseeing. The images are clearly advertisements: for years, in fact, they were inevitably pictures of people taking pictures of other people, at golf outings, fishing trips, teen parties, weddings. The Coloramas today remind me of a lot of things: the vast flattened panoramas of Andreas Gursky, the alienated subjects of Tina Barney, the creepy psychodramas of Gregory Crewdson. But at the time, these pictures must have seemed like an epic attempt to merge two great American traditions: the impossibly vast landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, and the homey tableaus of Norman Rockwell. (Although no Hudson River School painter was on hand to help with 1959's "Camping at Lake Placid," Rockwell himself is credited as art director for 1954's "Closing on a Summer Cottage.")

For the six years I commuted past the Colorama in the eighties, the pictures were more generic, not quite as obviously stilted. Only one of them is pictured in the Aperture collection. This was, after all, the decade of David Lynch and "Twin Peaks:" we knew about irony, okay? The forced smiles of happy families frozen in contrived poses would have conjured up questions of what these repressive characters could possibly be concealing. It was not unlike the way my hero John Cheever, writing of a bucolic commuter town pretty much identical to my own, could hint at the undercurrents of adultery, alchoholism and ennui that festered behind the pretty suburban facades.

"The Colorama format," writes Alison Nordstrom in the book's opening essay, "exaggerated the epic presentation of things in rows: midshipmen, choirboys, babies, fighter jets, gondolas, iceboats, koalas, kittens and tulips were all graphically displayed in rhythmic and gargantuan display." Indeed, the most memorable Colorama from my early commuting days was a portrait of a dozen babies, lined up like so many top heavy dolls, snapped at a moment when -- impossibly -- each had decided to look his or her absolute cutest for the camera. This ridiculously corny but endlessly enthralling image was so popular that it was reprised a few years later. The adorable dozen, now toddlers, were lined up for a reshoot.

In the nineties, Grand Central recieved a masterful renovation at the hands of architects Beyer Blinder Belle. The Colorama, once a welcome diversion, seemed by then vulgar and obtrusive. It had to go, and it did. Grand Central is sparkling and splendid now, and I doubt few people long for a corny, sixty foot long color picture to block the morning sunlight streaming through the concourse's east windows. I do, however, wonder whatever happened to those babies.

Posted in: Business, Photography, Social Good

Comments [8]

Michael, the baby line-up you mentioned was created by Sam Campanaro and Marty Czamanske — two Kodak photographers. Sam Campanaro's daughter was expecting her first child and at the baby shower, all the babies present were spontaneously lined up on the sofa for a group photo. This became the inspiration for the Colorama.

At the studio, Czamanske's first child and Campanaro's grandson Evan were placed in the center of the composition — to prevent any unfortunate cropping in other media or formats. The image was recorded in one shot on 8 x 10, and cropped top and bottom to fit.

This particular group was photographed two other times, as toddlers and as First Graders. I hear the toddler shoot was the most difficult — to be expected.

When the Colorama left Grand Central, it was renamed Kodarama and moved to Times Square.

Now tell us, have you ever swum across Westchester, from backyard pool to backyard pool?
M Kingsley

Mark, never did I imagine that someone would actually have an answer to my idle question about whatever happened to the babies in that early 80s Colorama. Like Tom Wolfe once said about some other large scale urban images (Las Vegas signs), we just assume these things appear like Easter Island statues. The fact that each is a unique creation by unique human beings is easy to forget.

It makes me wonder about the armies of blandly attractive people that fill our stock libraries. Are they disoriented when they see themselves out there for all the world to see?
Michael Bierut

It is surreal to think that this picture signified what the american family was supposed to be, and in some cases still strives to be. I find it interesting though. Almost like the people in these types of photographs are like dolls in a doll house perfectly placed for immediate scrutiny. Are we really scrutinizing the picture perfect world or ourselves?

Talk about reprises, wouldn't it be interesting to recreate this photograph with cardboard cut-outs of what a typical american family is today?
P. Becker

Michael, having an answer about Kodak photographs is easy if you went to school in Rochester. Even after years of constant attrition by layoff, it still has a company town quality.

To further idle thoughts re: stock photo models — as someone who is featured in a karaoke video, I can attest to the sense of postmodern irony when performing to a video that stars myself. Perhaps a similar feeling comes over a certain Asian-American male in his mid-twenties who wears heavy black-framed glasses and sports a slightly punky hairstyle. Sound familiar?
M Kingsley

I can understand that the depictions in the Coloramas weren't exactly correct. But as I was reading about them, I felt not a sense of corniness but a sense of nostalgia. My question is: what would be so bad about having those Coloramas back up again? I can be just as cynical as the next person but some people still have hope and a touch of sentimentality.

Bottom line: Do a new Colorama with those same toddlers who are now adults and show that not every single one comes from a broken home or is on drugs. Show that they are well-adjusted human beings and have them smile. It's possible.
M. Zacher

The 'passage' here in reference to the Grand Central Terminal interior, reminds me of a PBS documentary about New York City which included footage of old Penn Station.
That used to be New York's great indoor room.
The new Penn Station ticket hall design by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) could (can't tell if it's already constructed or still in progress) incorporate an all-new Kodarama. Given that images displayed on these screens are not always in color, reviving this marketing 'tool' as Kodarama reinforces their brand while opening the door to a public exhibit area for exclusively black and white photography. With too much color coming at us from all angles it would be a welcome change to step into a space like that envisaged by SOM and find a huge screen showing only 'grayscale', still photography. This article on jumbotrons explains the sums paid by advertisers to Times Square properties for such screens to dominate the cityscape. Kodarama's placement over a hotel facade seems uncharacteristic of the brand. In Twin Peaksy contrast, LA's Kodak Theatre which highlights their 'moving pictures' product is tucked away in a retail complex off of Hollywood boulevard.
Veering south of there, a few Sunset boulevard scenes can be found on Phil Ethington's webpages where he has meshed together photos into panoramas which feature 360° views of Los Angeles.
As we read Michael's nostalgic piece featuring 'Saturday Night Bath' we are each looking at our desktop or laptop 'ramas', where we set our own preferences, by reshaping windows, for a look onto the web and other running programs. Some of us fondly remembering bath time with our children; some of us actually back at the computer with hands still damp from having just bathed our little ones. And I now wonder if it is likely the toddlers' parents, as friends, know which colleges each of them went off to. Can you imagine any of them in a graphic design program near you, at NSU, or studying theatre at Swarthmore?

The redesign of Penn Station designed by SOM has been on hold since 2001. It does indeed feature an enormous media wall. SOM commissioned a widely-published design for the wall from Lisa Strausfeld, which can be viewed here. You're right in thinking that it might be considered an heir to the Colorama tradition.
Michael Bierut

I am looking for a colorama that was displayed at the rochester international airport in the 1970`s. are thei any archives I can look into on the web perhaps? I was in the colorama which is why Im looking for it..
thank you.

kevin michaelsen

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