This Land Is Your Land
November 12, 2003 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Vanished America If you've ever wondered what to do with all of your old vacation photos and slides, wonder no more. A fellow named Charles Cushman bequeathed his collection of over 14,000 slides and photos taken over a period of three decades, from 1938 to 1969, to Indiana Univiersity. IU has decided to create an amazing digital archive of his photos as a history project. The photos are nothing special in themselves. He took countless pictures of things he and his wife saw as they took driving tours across the United States, mostly near their home in Chicago and in the West. They are no different than and no better than anybody else's amateur photos. But, as the director of the project points out, without realizing it, Cushman captured an America already beginning to disappear in the middle of the 20th century, and did so by documenting its disappearance unwittingly over a thirty-year period. I lightly perused the slide show of 120 images and the photos are indeed both banal and compelling all at the same time. A very nicely done site with a lot of rich material. (via The Cartoonist)
posted by briank (45 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
great link briank! will be spending some time here....
posted by bluno at 10:23 AM on November 12, 2003

[This is good.]
posted by rushmc at 10:25 AM on November 12, 2003

the lower east side sure has changed... huh?
posted by bluno at 10:26 AM on November 12, 2003

Wow. I Like. Some of those slides are incredible!
posted by dazed_one at 10:26 AM on November 12, 2003

[This is good]

Easily the 'link of the day' - thanks, briank!

and, fwiw, I think he was a pretty good photographer
posted by anastasiav at 10:27 AM on November 12, 2003

Very cool. One image in particular struck me because of how little it has changed: McSorley's Pub in NYC. This photo, taken in 1942, is virtually indistinguishable from what it looks like today.
posted by gwint at 10:27 AM on November 12, 2003

It's really bizarre to see color photos from 1940

Were color cameras so rare then?
posted by cinderful at 10:30 AM on November 12, 2003

I so respect people who know how to tease out the value of something lots of others might just have dismissed as uninteresting and useless. It's an ability worth having.
posted by orange swan at 10:32 AM on November 12, 2003

Were color cameras so rare then?

The cameras, of course, were not "color", the film was, and it was indeed quite new to the home market in 1940.
posted by briank at 10:46 AM on November 12, 2003

Were color cameras so rare then?

Calvin: How come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they have color film back then?
Calvin's Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just that the world was black and white then. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.
Calvin: But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?
Calvin's Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.
Calvin: But... But how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their paints have been shades of gray back then?
Calvin's Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the '30s.
Calvin: So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?
Calvin's Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

History of Photography; Early Color Photography;
Color Photography Warning! Weird Pop-up!;
Russian Color Photos circa WWI; A History of Photography
posted by anastasiav at 10:46 AM on November 12, 2003

Excellent, thanks BrianK!

Also for me a great example of a lengthy FPP that really works.

(makes mental note to write better fpps in future)

posted by carter at 11:05 AM on November 12, 2003

oops, briank.
posted by carter at 11:06 AM on November 12, 2003

What a magnificent obsession!

Some of his early photos have a colorized look. I wonder if some of the photos were hand colored, or if that was the state of the technology at the time.
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:11 AM on November 12, 2003

Hm. I always thought I would turn my old photos over to these guys. But this could work, too.
posted by coelecanth at 11:16 AM on November 12, 2003

[This is better than good.]

What's amazing to me is that seeing color photographs from the 30s and 40s reifies those images so strongly for me.

Gonna be sending this link along to my mum, who's just the right age to appreciate these photos taken when she was a kid.
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:17 AM on November 12, 2003

briank - pshh. details, details.

anastasiav, I was thinking of that same exact thing.
posted by cinderful at 11:20 AM on November 12, 2003

Goes to prove what George Bush once said while getting out of his shower to go to a baseball game: the more things change the more they alter.
posted by Postroad at 11:23 AM on November 12, 2003

fantastic link, briank! but you wrote: They are no different than and no better than anybody else's amateur photos. i disagree -- it's easy to take snapshots, but these are often beautifully composed, and there is a poignant quality, and a richness to the colors...amazing!
posted by serafinapekkala at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2003

Don't forget the Library of Congress's fantastic collection of color photographs of Czarist Russia circa 1910 (yes, 1910), previously discussed.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:34 AM on November 12, 2003

I have yet to go through a big box in the basement of color slides taken by a relative during the late 50s and 60s...unfortunately they're not as well-documented as this collection, and a lot of them are indoor pictures of people at parties...still, old stuff in color is interesting no matter what it is. This is great.

Faneuil Hall in Boston sure looks different today.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2003

That is a great link briank, thank you very much!
posted by sebas at 11:53 AM on November 12, 2003

I love these photographs, thank you. Sites like this make me very sad as well, they are a testament to the indefatigable march of time and entropy. Even though a few of the places may still look the same today, the unique combination of events that made them what they were at that moment in history is something the viewer can never experience any way but vicariously. A good picture can almost transport you there, it seems. The hubub becomes almost audible, you feel the emotions of the subject. A sense of place that cannot be put into words is somehow transmitted.

I think the same kinds of feelings of longing are what inspire people to collect antiques, old cars and the like. A desire to experience or perhaps rexeperience something gone from the world. I can say from personal experience that, if one keeps to the "blue highways," driving an old car across the western deserts and mountains, at night, when you are all by yourself in the world, it can kind of feel like a time machine.
posted by jester69 at 12:12 PM on November 12, 2003

Wow - there went the afternoon. This was also neat for me in that the photos started a few months before my father was born, and end a week before my birth.
posted by jalexei at 12:13 PM on November 12, 2003

Now, I'm not knocking it and all, but most of the photos don't seem to show much change at all besides fashion styles and different cars. I mean, what? We don't have trailer parks anymore? Guys on horseback don't patrol the Big Bend? New Orleans doesn't have dive bars and folks on stoops in the 9th ward? Hell, I can take you to this place (or one that looks identical except for the cars) in Vicksburg!

Again, I find them cool, but what's so "vanishing" about these?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:33 PM on November 12, 2003

Fantastic link. I love the Lower East Side one bluno linked (now the South Street Seaport), and this one of my generation disporting itself when we were young and gay happy. I could have used fewer pictures of nature and circuses, but I won't look this gift horse in the mouth.
posted by languagehat at 1:07 PM on November 12, 2003

We don't have trailer parks anymore?

We do but in about the same ratio, then and now, as we have bowling alleys and drive in theaters.

I have seen so much disappear in my life. How old are you?
posted by y2karl at 1:12 PM on November 12, 2003

The linked essay from the project's director makes a number of good observations about the changes Cushman documented:

In other words, Cushman's America, as revealed in the more than 14,000 images on this web site, is a place still cast more in the mold of the past than of the future. In his slides we see the final stage, the downward slope, of a long era of construction and accumulation that began with the canal and railroad projects of the mid-1800s, accelerated with the organization of massive, steam-driven manufacturing operations and closely spaced residential neighborhoods, and finally transformed under the dispersing influence of electrical power and internal combustion engines. The interstate highway system was, at the time that Cushman put away his last camera, still only a dozen years old. Suburbs—today home to a majority of Americans—housed only 35 percent of the population, the same number as those living outside of metropolitan areas altogether.
posted by briank at 1:21 PM on November 12, 2003

I'm 30, and I read the essay, it didn't seem to help. Seems that fashion senses changed over the years and a few buildings have been built or torn down in several of the shots, but for the most part these pictures could be taken today in many of the very same places if you substituted old car models for the modern ones and put folks in period outfits. Maybe its just I've lived in the very places Chushman photographs, South Western Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Odessa, Texas, New Orleans, Chicago and I can tell you first hand, they ain't that different.

I'm trying to find out from my dad if he knows this guy, he's bound to!
posted by Pollomacho at 1:31 PM on November 12, 2003

This is amazing. Great link. Now I have some idea of what it would be like to catalog my father's slide collection.

My three favorites (so far).
posted by Dick Paris at 2:04 PM on November 12, 2003

Some of his early photos have a colorized look. I wonder if some of the photos were hand colored, or if that was the state of the technology at the time.

tis the nature of the amazing and slightly rare, expensive and toxic to process kodachrome film.
posted by c at 4:01 PM on November 12, 2003

This is a wonderful link.

And done at my alma mater, no less!
posted by SisterHavana at 5:16 PM on November 12, 2003

This is a great idea. Thanks for the link.

I also think he's a pretty good photographer. One of my favorites.
posted by mrcircles at 6:12 PM on November 12, 2003

Excellent! Banal maybe, but wonderful. A favourite
posted by marvin at 6:24 PM on November 12, 2003

Midgets, forward march!

posted by pemulis at 7:41 PM on November 12, 2003

Seriously, this is positively sensational. I've gone fishing here! These photos evoke a strange nostalgic feeling that I'm not familiar with. The type of film he used, is it still being produced today? This is great.
posted by pemulis at 7:52 PM on November 12, 2003

Fabulous fun, great post!
posted by dejah420 at 9:47 PM on November 12, 2003

Thanks Briank. This is great documentary photography.

some favs.
posted by jazzkat11 at 9:55 PM on November 12, 2003

Magnificent, and sad, for me, for some reason. Thanks.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:32 AM on November 13, 2003

I showed this site to my father last night. This picture shows the courthouse where my great-grandfather had his office (ground level windows from stairs to corner) for 40 or so years, the ford out front is his. Now that's a strange feeling.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:03 AM on November 13, 2003

y2karl - great selection of photographs, but I'm going to have to side with those who are a little puzzled over why people describe this as a lost world. I'm 46, and I've seen much change, but I've also seen much stay the same. I live in southern Michigan and much of the Indiana countryside pictures looked quite familiar to me; shocked wheat? wooden fences? ramshackle barns and houses? It's all still there.

And trailer parks? They're pretty common where I live - I live in one. There's still a few bowling alleys in town and well, one drive in theatre in Coldwater survived.

Get outside of the cities and suburbs and you'd be surprised - much of that "old America" is still there.
posted by pyramid termite at 8:37 AM on November 13, 2003

I shouldn't have taken the time to go thru the highlights slideshow but I HAD to. "Banal"? What are you, nuts? I would kill to have this guy's sense of composition---and you have no idea how difficult photography was in those days, or how expensive. Thanks for the link---when I get a breather I'll be working my way thru his entire collection. And thanks for the link, even if you don't appreciate his eye as much as I do!
posted by realjanetkagan at 3:04 PM on November 13, 2003

posted by stbalbach at 4:15 PM on November 13, 2003

Thanks everybody for finding nits to pick with me for not wording my post in a way you liked, I'll be sure to return the favor real soon.
posted by briank at 5:51 PM on November 13, 2003

Thanks everybody for finding nits to pick with me...

Briank, chill. Something Like 30 people said best post ever or something similar and 2 or 3 said they didn't understand what had vanished. That is not nit-picking, that is discourse. If you are that hypersensitive, the internet is not a good playground for you. Take up stamp collecting perhaps.
posted by jester69 at 7:08 AM on November 14, 2003

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