Randolph Street, 1963
The Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection at Indiana University is one of the most mesmerizing photography collections online—especially if you’re a Chicagophile.
Cushman was a Chicago businessman who was not famous or noteworthy beyond his circle of family, friends and associates. But he liked photography. And what makes his work unusual—and thus worth celebrating—is that as early as 1938, he shot in color using Kodak slide film. As a result, a pre- and postwar Chicago that is normally seen through black-and-white photography is presented, by Cushman, in crisp, brilliant color.
Much of his photography captures the last days of older, decaying Chicago. Among the most striking is this 1944 of Potter Palmer’s castle at 1350 N. Lake‚ Shore Drive. Color makes the doomed pile seem even heavier, sadder. The building that essentially created the Gold Coast (the rich folks followed the Palmers from the South Side when this castle was built in 1885) would fall to the wrecker’s ball six years later.
Look at this amazing 1942 photo of a black family sitting on the porch of a Second Empire house at 92nd and State that is so delightfully—almost impossibly—ramshackle, it‚ almost looks like a Disneyland attraction. If the house lasted until the 1960s, it was bulldozed for the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Here’s a long-gone grocery store at 14th and Sangamon, 1949. Look at the columns that frame the entrances and the shop wind0w.
These buildings Cushman photographed in 1941 at 32nd and Rhodes were demolished in the following decade to build Lake Meadows apartments.
The famed Emmett Kelly, 1949, at the Ringling Bros. circus here in Chicago:
The Prairie Avenue District in 1946—before the bulldozers:
Cushman spent a lot of time photographing Jackson Park and Promontory Point in Hyde Park, especially the bathing beauties who frequented the beachfront there. These women would be in their 80s or beyond by now. Cushman captures them in the bloom of their youth:
Woman and dog at 55th and the Lake
And Maria Grygier, from September 1949:
Cushman’s family donated more than 14,000 slides to his alma mater following his death in 1973. About 1,200 are of Chicago. IU digitized the photos and put them online in 2003 where their recognition continues to grow, particularly among street photographers who revisit and re-shoot Cushman locales to show what’s changed—or remained the same.
(Hey, wait a second: An amateur photographer…traipsing around Chicago with camera in hand—with a heavy emphasis on downtown and the city’s South Side and the occasional pretty woman? This sounds like someone we know.)