Sometimes the most remarkable treasures take a while to be found, even in your own backyard. In 1972, the first portion of Charles W. Cushman’s photographs, notebooks, and camera equipment was donated to the Indiana University Archives. It wasn’t until 1999 when an archivist rediscovered the cases of slides and prints that the extent and value of Cushman’s generosity became clear.
In Living Color
In the bequeathed collection were thousands of photographs that Cushman took between his graduation from Indiana University in 1917 and his death in 1972. The majority of the collection is comprised of 14,500 Kodachrome slides taken between 1938 and 1969, which includes the earliest years of color photography. He is described as an amateur photographer, but as the sheer number suggests, these are not amateur snapshots. Instead, the pictures form an astonishing document of the United States, Western Europe, and the Middle East in a period of quick, almost inconceivable change.
Whether in Rome, Dublin, New York City, rural Indiana, small towns in Mexico, or many other places, Cushman froze time with his camera and captured images that might seem anachronistic to contemporary viewers—like a horse-drawn cart making a delivery in Dublin in 1961. In a sense, this catalog provides a vivid illustration of how much has changed in a relatively short period of time.
Experts have noted the impressive technical facts about these photographs. Cushman used the best equipment he could, but even more important was his decision to shoot on Kodachrome color film. Since most photographers during these years used black and white film, Cushman’s photographs constitute an unusual record. Until the archiving and digitization of these photographs, the decades between 1938 and 1958 were most frequently recorded in black and white photography.
Second is the quality of the photographs. Cushman probably had no formal education in art or photography, yet the composition of many photographs is stunning. When he captures the faces of three African American children peeking through a window, the cropping of the image is perfect and there is nothing to distract the viewer from the expressions on the children’s faces.
Such striking image composition occurs over and over. From pictures of :
bullet shacks in South Carolina
bullet to a Chicago ice cream vendor talking to a customer leaning out a second-floor window
bullet to a young girl in Damascus
bullet to hippies hanging out in Haight-Ashbury
bullet to red rock formations in Utah that rival in their color the starkness of an Ansel Adams picture.
In the Limelight
Now, thanks to the archival work at IU, these images and stories will not fall into oblivion. By digitizing the entire archive and providing a simple interface that allows the user to browse the images by a wide range of genres, subjects, and keywords, the IU Digital Library Program has ensured that Cushman’s work will be available to the widest audience possible. In addition, the user can browse Cushman’s notebooks and view an excellent timeline of his life.
The impact of the newly publicized collection across the Internet has been immediate and sensational: The website of a major TV news channel in New York City, NY1 News, selected the Cushman site as a top story when it first appeared. It was chosen as a Yahoo pick of the day and became a topic of intense debate on Metafilter.com and several other weblogs. This is no doubt the beginning of a conversation that will go on for many years.
For a sample of the sites that have discussed the Cushman archive, go to: