Cushman revealed: New book examines posthumously-famous Chicago street photographer

February 29, 2012

The documentary-style photographs of the late amateur photographer Charles W. Cushman have developed a near cult-like following since Indiana University put their alum and one-time Chicagoan's images online back in 2003.

That's because Cushman took 14,500 images between 1938 and 1969, almost exclusively using Kodachrome color slide film. Cushman took a world normally seen in photos and film in sharp black-in-white tones and presented it in bright, vibrant old school color. Though Cushman's Chicago photographs are but part of the collection, they are among the most striking he uses color to record a city in transition; gaslight and cobblestone Chicago yielding to the bulldozer and progress. The photo above is from 1941, showing the demolition of the Otis Home, 1709 S. Prairie (Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives [P02383])

This blog reported on Cushman's images almost two years ago. And now, Indiana University professor Eric Sandweiss has captured Cushman's photography and story in a new book, The Day in Its Color: Charles Cushman's Photographic Journey Through a Vanishing America, published by Oxford University Press. The book's 150 photos show us a few places, including San Francisco, New Orleans and of course Chicago. I caught up with Sandweiss this week to ask him about the book.

LB: Describe the Chicago--the moment in time in the life of the city--that Cushman captured? Why was he drawn to patrol the streets with his camera?

ES: Cushman moved to the South Side of Chicago just after he finished up his wartime service at Great Lakes Naval Station, in 1918. His Kodachromes of the city date primarily from 1940 to 1953, the year that he and his wife left the city for their next home, San Francisco. During that time, he was well aware of the changing nature of the city’s neighborhoods, particularly his own South Side as well as the West Side, around Maxwell Street. Since we know the exact day that every shot was taken, we know, too, that Cushman was reading in the Tribune of upcoming demolition and renewal projects, like Lake Meadows or IIT, even as he took to the streets to document the buildings that remained on those sites. So it’s a very important “moment,” to use your word, in the life of Chicago—as large swathes of the city are being either neglected by those with the means to look elsewhere, or are giving way to a new vision of urbanism, community, and sociability. Cushman was not indifferent to this change but he wasn’t a social reformer, either.  It was a vision that he didn’t understand, and I think he wanted to hang on just a little longer to the world he had known.

LB: Cushman documents a lot of architecture, particularly in neighborhoods. What story emerges from that?

ES: Occasionally Cushman would photograph a unique or spectacular structure—one thinks of his image of the modernist Gidwitz House on Woodlawn, or the weird Moorish-Queen Anne mash-up of the Mantonya flats on North Dearborn.  But for the most part, he honed in on simple buildings that remind us of the changing tastes of everyday developers and tenants who worked within the limits of their sites, city codes, and family budgets.  In that sense, it’s a story of the changing ways in which architects and builders adapted to the demands of a competitive urban real estate market.  Stylistically, it’s nice that we get a range from “Chicago’s oldest house”—the Clark House, then on South Wabash—to the Marina Towers, but in between those notable bookends, there are a lot of reminders of how architecture functions in the everyday world.

LB: Right. Because he doesn't just give us "postcard Chicago", does he? He's in the old so-called "Black Belt" on the city's South Side and places like the shipping areas of the Calumet River. What story was he looking to tell?

ES: Cushman loved cities as only a small-town boy can.  He was fascinated by their bustle and activity and surprise.  He loved going to the circus.  He ran to see train wrecks.  But even more than that, he always had an “eye for business.”  His day jobs involved analyzing economic trends, understanding how raw resources were hauled from the earth, transported, processed, packaged, advertised, consumed.  So his Chicago—like his America—is not just a nostalgic or picturesque landscape, though it’s that, too, of course. It’s a place where work gets done, things are made, stuff wears out and gets replaced.  It’s a place that demonstrates the constant cycles of capitalism.  And clearly his feelings about those cycles were mixed—he benefited from them a great deal, in terms of his personal well-being, but he also recognized with some sadness, I think, the constant destruction that they brought about.  He wanted to show everyday Chicago, and as a longtime South Sider, I think he felt as much right as the next man to walk down the streets of the Black Belt or any other neighborhood, taking pictures.

LB: What does color add to the narrative?

ES: In some ways, color is the narrative. Cushman seemed to be saying, “Well, this is what the world looks like, so why wouldn’t I want to show it?” Walker Evans complained that color photos were too full of “noise”—that is, that they drew a viewer’s attention away from the essence or the truth of forms.  But for Cushman and many others, color was the essence.  We’ve been so well-trained by photographers like Evans, and the historians and curators and artists who followed in their footsteps, that we forget that black and white is not the world-as-it-is; it’s a very stylized, selective interpretation of that world, and it’s one that we’ve adopted as having a historical “fitness” for certain times and places. Looking at early Kodachrome images of Chicago reminds us that, as grim and tough as city life was for many people during and after the Depression, it still took place against a full sensory backdrop of life. There was indeed a lot of visual “noise” on the street, and that wasn’t such a bad thing.

LB: This question might seem odd: But when I've shown the images to otherwise sane people, more than a few of them--particularly those under 50--told me there was something spooky about seeing images that old in color. Have you ever gotten that response?

ES: There are certainly times, especially in the early years of the project, when I had it myself.  Perhaps it comes from a phenomenon I referred to earlier [which is] our tendency to distance ourselves temporally from black-and-white, and to compress temporal distance when we’re in the presence of color. In a Cushman picture, we’ll see a street looking just as though it might have been glimpsed outside our window this morning--until we notice that the cars are too big, or that the men are all wearing hats, or the women’s dresses are three inches too long. Buildings change and decay at a different rate from fashions, or everyday technologies, or human lives. So it’s almost as though we’re seeing ghosts walking through a familiar and tangible world.

LB: Of his architectural work, which images stand out to you?

ES: As I mentioned, the collection includes surprisingly little “heroic” architectural photography, of the kind that we’d recognize in the work of a professional Julius Shulman, or that we’d expect from the pages of commercial journals like Progressive Architecture. So I’m as likely to be struck by the shadows crossing the portico of a disused South Side synagogue, or by a makeshift storefront projecting from the basement of a faded townhouse as I am by the occasional big, well-framed shot of a masterpiece like the Trib Tower or Marina City.

LB: The bathing beauties at Jackson Park and Promontory Point are fun. What do we know about these women? Have they, or their kids and grandkids, come forward since the collection has been online?

ES: I’m hoping that the appearance of the book—particularly in Chicago—will help me to learn more than I have in years of searching for the details of these women's lives. Cushman was a “lady’s man,” to be sure, but as an only child with no children of his own--and as someone who passed away almost 40 years ago--he left behind very few people who can tell us something about him. So we turn to the photographs.  Many of the beach girls are identified in his notes: some with only a first name, others with their full name. I’ve been through the usual routes—period phone directories, Ancestry.com searches, etc.—and not turned up any firm connections. One woman, who appears as a young child in several of Cushman’s pictures, confirmed that the images showed herself—and she could even date them as having been made at a time when her father was in the service and her mother used to take her for walks on the beach. But she was astonished to see herself through this stranger’s eyes, and had no recollection of the moment. Another lead took me to a woman who turned out not to be, as I’d expected, the young bride shown with her husband in some of Cushman’s pictures, but the man’s second wife—and she was not too interested in facilitating my contact with him. So it goes. But I know that some of these women are out there, as are certainly more than a few of their children. I hope they’ll come forward and perhaps fill in a few of the pieces of the puzzle.

LB: What kind of man was Cushman? He was born in 1896 and died in 1972. What have you been able to learn?

ES: He was lucky, for sure. As one relative recalled, he married well—into a family that brought him professional connections and, with those opportunities, a certain degree of material comfort.  There’s a rumor that some of his family land in southern Indiana yielded oil in the 1920s, which if true could further explain his leisure to drive about the country for years at a time. But more than that, Cushman seems to have been an affable, genial kind of guy who never asked for too much from life, and one can’t help liking him as one follows him through his photographs—which are pretty much all, besides a couple of letters and an employment application, that he left behind. He was apparently somewhat reserved, and he remained a businessman, even with camera in hand. But his images of flowers, children, and pretty young women show a sentimental, romantic side waiting to reveal itself. He lived modestly but well—lived in simple apartments but enjoyed nice cars and expensive bourbon and opera records. And finally, I think he prided himself on remaining an amateur—taking thousands of great photographs that few people would ever see, knowing that he was painting a dramatic portrait of a vanishing America that would lie, unrevealed, in boxes until some time after his death.

LB: What surprised you most in putting the book together? Was there an image or an anecdote that gave you pause--either good or bad?

ES: Two discoveries stand out as I think about how the story deepened beyond its initial scope—which was simply to analyze the American landscape as it appeared in Cushman’s pictures. First, learning from Brad Cook, the IU archivist who maintains the Cushman collection, that Cushman was a first cousin by marriage to John Steinbeck.  Although he was never important enough in the writer’s eyes to have appeared in Steinbeck’s letters, we know that Cushman’s father-in-law—Steinbeck’s uncle—Joseph Hamilton was. In fact, Joe--with whom Cushman and his wife lived for much of their married life--shows up as a character in Steinbeck’s autobiographical family saga, East of Eden.  Once I understood that Cushman and Steinbeck—nearly the same age—were each drawn to, and in some ways dependent upon, this charismatic and wealthy older man, I saw Cushman’s project in a new light. I appreciated better the fact that he was driving many of the same highways as his famous cousin, documenting in pictures what Steinbeck was memorializing in words. 

LB: And there was the time his wife, who is in some of his photos, shot her herself--and him--while they lived in Hyde Park.

ES: In Feb. 1943, Cushman’s wife, Jean, shot him in the head and then turned the gun on herself. Her father Joe Hamilton had died a month earlier. She was despondent, wanted to end her life, but told police that she didn’t want to leave Charles alone in the world. They both survived. And they stayed together for another 25 years, until her death—much of that time sitting a foot away from one another in the family car as he took her on his road trips. We still don’t know more fully the details of what happened that night in Hyde Park, and why. But his continued devotion to Jean in the years that followed, and his need to disappear into the frame of his Contax’s rangefinder, seem to me to go together. The pictures offered him utter escape for the span of one-fiftieth of a second, and recharged him with the energy he needed to return to his responsibilities in the world.