Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Kodak Colorama: The Biggest Kodak Moments of All Time

In its heyday, the Eastman Kodak company dominated the North American photography so much that its signature phrase "Kodak Moment" became a popular tagline for any moment worth photographing. Sadly, with Kodak filing for bankruptcy and planning to sell of many of its divisions, those days are long gone. However, thanks to the company's passion for visual excellence, many of the best Kodak Moments are preserved in large format images. In the middle of the last century, Kodak presented its Kodak Colorama, touted as the biggest photographs of its generation and certainly some of the best Kodak Moments of all time.

The Kodak Colorama were a collection of 18 feet high by 60 feet long color photographs that were displayed in the interior of Grand Central Station from the 1950s to the 1980s. The long strips of vivid color images depicted scenes of Americana reminiscent of Norman Rockwell's paintings, from Thanksgiving dinners to poolside parties to cowboys in the Grand Tetons. In the span of 40 years, over 500 Coloramas were displayed in the station's balconies.

The Colorama's story began in 1950 when Kodak was invited to advertise their products in Grand Central's east balcony. Because of the size of the area presented to them, the company's executives though it would be best to go with really large images covering the span of the balcony. The extreme size of these Coloramas demanded new photographic and processing techniques: a custom-built enlarger was made for the project, and the first few Coloramas required 450 feet of film. The ambient light was also a problem; because of the low light levels inside the station, the images were printed on special transparencies which were then illuminated from behind, not unlike the effect from stained-glass windows in churches and cathedrals.

The first few Coloramas centered around the theme of rebirth and rebuilding. The US had emerged from World War II only a few years before, and so Kodak photographers played on the themes of the American family and the golden age of the 1950s. While the scenes were majestically staged, they also had to convey a photographic message, specifically that ordinary people with small Kodak cameras could take the same shot.  Thus, the familiar Americana and family theme remained a popular one all throughout the decades.

 Because of the Colorama's unusual format, special cameras were used to make the images. The first photographs were made with old 8 x 10 large format cameras which were bulky and cumbersome to carry and operate. In later Coloramas, photographers had to work around the large format cameras they had with them, whether it was a scene in an ordinary living room, or underwater in the seas of St. Croix. It was only in 1986 when technology had improved enough that a Colorama was made from an ordinary 35mm camera.

As the decades came and went, subjects outside of the Americana theme were used and locations around the world (especially around famous tourist spots) became a popular Colorama theme. As the 1980s rolled in, technological advancements and consumer familiarity meant that the once majestic Coloramas became less and less impressive, and ordinary people thought of them as overwrought and even gaudy. The last Colorama was taken down in 1990.

While the primary intent of the Coloramas was to advertise Kodak's film and cameras, they became a visual record of what most people thought of as the ideal life worth photographing. Indeed, looking back at these images, it becomes clear that Kodak wasn't just selling cameras, but touting its vision of the American Dream.

For the past few months, the New York Transit Museum has been exhibiting the a selection of Colorama images as part of George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film's larger international exhibition. The images are currently on display until November 1st.

There's a lot more images and information on the Kodak Colorama e-magazine. This 30-minute documentary describes the entire era quite well. There's more old-school Kodak moments in this feature on Kodachrome. The large-format collection is published in Colorama: The World's Largest Photographs with more Kodak color goodness in Bound for Glory: America in Color 1939-43 and Americans in Kodachrome 1945-1965.


Ray Rousell said...

Shame about Kodak, but it seems to be the way of the world at the moment, they're some great nostalgic pics.

MRanthrope said...

wow. Those photos, feel like instant time travel. Something about actual print images in such large formats. Like watching The Master in 70mm projection, this large visuals engulf the viewer. Amazing really.

I'm checking out that documentary now also. thanks.

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