The Day in Its Color: Charles Cushman’s Photographic Journey Through a Vanishing America was another Twitter recommendation, and a really nice find. Eric Sandweiss’ nearly book-length essay provides background and commentary to Charles Cushman’s expansive archive of color slides. While I wish there was more in the way of plates, it’s all together a good thing, and really rather obnoxiously cheap.
Cushman loaded a roll of Kodachrome into a Contax IIA in 1938, just a couple of years after the film appeared, and photographed the US, East to West and North to South for more than 30 years. In 1969, when he finally pulled the car into the driveway and stopped traveling, he amassed a carefully archived collection of 14,500 mounted slides. Like something of a precursor to Vivian Meier, Cushman never published or exhibited in his lifetime. His archive was broken up and sold off after his death, in 1972, then reassembled and cataloged in 1999, and available to view only in 2003. Sandweiss’ The Day in Its Color appeared in 2012.
Really, The Day in Its Color seems as much a vehicle for Sandweiss’ scholarship than one for Cushman’s photography. The writing is solid and good, if rather repetitive and simple. I find it hard to read: after a few lines, I start to skim and I have to focus really really hard to get through the text, and I more or less gave up part way through the section “Dawn,” on Indiana from ~1690 and Cushman’s family, his 1896 birth up to his graduation from college in 1918 and Navy service (in Chicago, where he’d end up living).
The first quarter of the book contains relatively few pictures. It’s mostly Sandweiss’s commentary on Cushman’s life and work (and whatever else: I didn’t even skim most of it). There’s maybe a handful of Cushman’s black & white photographs, along with some archival images. I assume the commentary is worth reading, and with apologies to Sandweiss, I didn’t. Shame on me.
The rest of the book has some sequences of pictures wedged in between sequences of text. Many images have a bit of commentary, and I read most of that… Had I read the full text, I might’ve learned more about Cushman’s obsessive note-taking—he apparently made exposure and subject notes on nearly every photograph he made—or more about his biography. Oh well.
Following a small group of pictures of agricultural and mineral-extraction sites, and some photographs of cities, in a group of photographs of women, mostly in bathing suits, I learned that Cushman’s wife attempted a murder/suicide in 1943, shooting Charles in the head twice, and then turning the gun on herself. They both survived, and later pictures of Jean show a changed woman. What might I learn from reading the rest of the text?
Allahu Alim (God knows), and, well, the far better and more literate people who’ve read the text.
Sandweiss helpfully collects groups of images into Portfolios: “From the Countryside to the Central City” with aforementioned photographs of agricultural and mineral, then cityscape; “Chicago” with some images that anticipate The Destruction of Lower Manhattan; “San Francisco,” a collection of images from the city, still with a preservation aspect, but more interested in the landscape; “California,” ditto; and “Things to Come” with pictures of highway interchanges under construction, buildings and campuses in progress, and etc.
Given the quantity of text, this logophile has a hard time really looking at the pictures; given the quality of the text—or perhaps the quality of my recent diet or rest—I find the book hard to read. I really wish the images and text were more segregated. Alas.
You can find used copies for super cheap. I picked up this copy for less than $5, shipped, and at time of writing they can be had for ~$7. New copies still exist for $25 or $30. Given the quality of Cushman’s photography, and the value as nostalgia and history, I’m sorta shocked that I haven’t found another Cushman book, a proper Cushman book (as opposed to a regional, scholarly essay by a third party with some Cushman illustrations). Maybe Mack or Hatje Cantz or Steidl or the Indiana University Press (whose namesake holds the Cushman collection) might read this halfhearted review and give the archive another look or republish this book, re-edited to give some primacy to the photographs. There’s some great stuff here, and with 14,500 slides to go through, I bet there’s another book in there.