Larger than Life: Kodak’s Iconic Colorama

On the Shoulders of Giants

From the highest mountaintops to the depths of the ocean. From Thanksgiving dinner to a summer picnic. From a wheat field to the moon. From babies to the Rockettes. From sea to shining sea. For 40 years, we existed in spectacular living color in 60-foot-long glowing stunning images that illuminated parts of the world and life that most people had never seen. Welcome to Kodak’s America. In glorious Colorama.

Outsized Memories

One of the most iconic images that came to mind when we thought of Kodak was born out of a post-WWII ad campaign spearheaded by Kodak’s advertising and photography teams and lead by the mad men at JWT to sell color film. Color is just as easy as monochrome. Yes, amateur photographers. You can do this.

It worked.

Photography for photography’s sake was showcased in the largest medium in the biggest gallery at the time: Grand Central in NYC. From 1950–1990, no one walking through the terminal could fail to see the Coloramas. The 18’ high x 60’ wide panoramic photos were hard to miss. Large-scale. Backlit. They glowed with a supernatural transparency that mesmerized and stunned. The unrelenting dimness of Grand Central a perfect backdrop — framing Americana in all its idealized glory.

The impact at Grand Central was immediate and sustained through an astounding 565 Coloramas over a 40-year period. The world’s largest photographs were also “technically remarkable” as Colorama photographer, Ansel Adams had said. With each unveiling … standing ovations from NYC residents and travelers alike. Over 600,000 people. Each day.

Upon the first Colorama reveal in May 1950, photographer Edward Steichen telegraphed Kodak with this forever gem: “EVERYONE IN GRAND CENTRAL AGOG AND SMILING. ALL JUST FEELING GOOD.”

The world loved it.

Feeling Nostalgic

The Colorama world was new. And tremendous. And coveted. We wanted the idyllic country life if only as an escape from the comforts of suburbia. Those people vacationing and holidaying with families and friends enjoying life captured in color on ubiquitous cameras? That’s us. All of us. While it’s not an easy sync today to imagine real life as depicted in Colorama splendor, it did and still does tug persistently at a hidden part of us that is part wishing and all longing.

Kodak introduced us to Life Beautiful. Something new and tremendous was here. It captured a perfect glimpse of our collective hopes and dreams and served it up beautifully on a silver halide plate smack dab in the middle of post-war America. More than a mile of fluorescent tubing not only lit these huge transparencies, they spotlighted our powerful yearning for the good life.

Pleasures of Photography

As much as they were undisputed works of modern art, the Coloramas were an advertising campaign. And not just an ad campaign, the most iconic advertising campaign in history. They existed to sell Kodak products. Loads of them. And to put a camera in every hand in the quest to spread color photography and the now essential leisure activity to the willing masses. Aside from showcasing Kodak’s technological and creative prowess, these panoramic scenes were appreciated for promoting picture-taking by the millions on the hunt for the Kodak Moment.

Magic Alchemy

Those moments were captured by a group of magicians otherwise known as technicians, chemists, researchers, scientists, tinkerers — the inventors of dreams. Considering the limitations of existing technology at the time, it was bewildering and downright impressive how much science, engineering and invention went into this project. Can you say underwater Colorama?

Steve Kelly worked in the Kodak photographic illustrations department as a photographer for 38 years. He happened to have shot 20 out of the 565 Coloramas created. The process that brought the actual image to grand life was a feat of modern ingenuity the likes of which we so rarely see now. Taking us from the idea of using a banquet camera [mahogany preferably] that could capture large groups of people with enough details for them to recognize themselves — to portable cameras as large as an RV to the delight of travel photographers the world over — to the favored 8x10 camera that was Ansel Adams’ weapon of choice for Yosemite — a variety of large-format cameras were in play. The tool of the trade for professional photography has certainly evolved brilliantly in keeping with man’s creativity.

Then there was the film. The resolution and grain were getting better, coating was becoming thinner, the image sharper. Kelly explained, “From a distance, the Colorama was super sharp. The closer you get, the more it looked like a Monet.” Kodak would take the 8”x20” negative, step print it in vertical sections and essentially splice them together to create the 18’ x 60’ image and projected. Technicians would glue them together, piece by painstaking piece, all the while praying that the research team would just invent a proprietary tape to make their day ever bright. And they did. Those Kodak inventors. Magicians. Every. One. Coating came and made the sections seamless.

The remarkably complex process of making this giant piece of film reflected and showcased the technology of film. This undiluted flow of technology was brilliantly and ironically contrasted with the use of a pool on the sixth floor of Kodak B28 where wet 20-foot transparencies were dried overnight. The only building large enough for the birthing of a Colorama. This to Kodakers was what a rec center was for. Obviously.

Rochester born and bred, the Coloramas were rolled up and trucked to Grand Central and set in place in the middle of the night for the much anticipated reveal just in time for the morning commute. Representing many firsts, not just for Kodak but for the industry, the Coloramas were a proving ground dedicated to the men and women whose first words were often “we can fix that”. They just figured it out. The eurekas were more often than not “that’s funny …” Clearly, each print required a task force of Kodak experts.

Feeding the Beast

With a grand total of 565 Coloramas displayed at Grand Central changing out every two to three weeks at campaign start, a dedicated team was essential to the success of the program. If only to keep coming up with subjects for these mass-juried shows. In Kelly’s days, ideas and suggestions came from everywhere. From random drives and travels that provided instant inspo [hello, pumpkin field with grandpa] and a knock-down, drag-out discussion in the boardroom to a careful whisper in the right ear, Colorama photographers produced a jaw-dropping collection of work that has staunchly stood the truest tests of time. Confirmed by Kathy Connor, the curator of the George Eastman Legacy Collection for 34 years who said that there were timeless images still being requested today. With every call or note, she continued to marvel at the everlasting hold the Coloramas have on our collective consciousness.

The assignments were downright breathtaking at times. No coincidence that photographers would suddenly come up with a shoot idea in the tropics in the middle of say … January. Can we really fault them, Rochester? With the available technology then, you could imagine how much careful planning goes into each shoot, nay, each shot. So much work and too many technical aspects to consider when you were looking at an upside down image in reverse under a dark cloth beneath a beating sun. Fingers were crossed on the flight back with every photographer hoping they got the shot. Because it had to be perfect, it made you a better photographer. As Kelly said, “There were no mulligans”.

And the lucky recipients of this perfection? There were two. Unsurprisingly, the consumer was first as this was, first and foremost, an advertising campaign. Everyone who viewed the Coloramas was a potential consumer. #goalsetting

Audience #2: professional photographers. They may have started out hoping to capture the one shot that made it onto a Colorama, however, as time morphed with innovative advances, it became a technical challenge amongst the pros to see who could come up with THE most technically superior shot. And the bar to outstanding photography and untold creativity was identified and set. The photographers knew they were part of something historical and enduring. From the abundant local talents of the likes of Steve Kelly and Neil Montanus to occasional guest appearances in Ansel Adams, Elliot Porter and Norman Rockwell, their contributions to Kodak, Rochester, the industry and to the world would be forever captured in the memories of so many.

Exit Stage Right

The 1990 landmark renovation of Grand Central Terminal marked an end to the solid reign of Kodak Colorama. It was fitting that the final salute to the City was an apple tucked into a glittering skyline as Kodak said goodnight.

Kodak thanks the Big Apple for 40 years of friendship in Grand Central.

Today, a new generation will continue to discover, explore and celebrate these innovative makers. In 2010, Eastman Kodak donated the Colorama archive to the George Eastman Museum. The gift included thousands of original items and source materials along with display images of the entire Colorama collection according to Ross Knapper who was tasked as the caretaker and collection manager for the Department of Photography at the Museum. We cannot wait to see how this legacy shapes and informs the next generation of makers, innovators and creators.

Kodak planted a seed. They watered it and watched it grow into something far bigger than anything anyone could imagine. Literally. The exhibition celebrated more than photography. It gave birth to a process that required equal parts craft, science and technology. It paid homage to creativity and ingenuity from a not-so-distant past as we looked to a bigger than life future. For 40 years, the world’s largest picture show touched the hearts of millions and ignited an enduring passion for photography that now sits comfortably in our hands as we post, tweet, pin, gram and snap our way into the collective visual fabric that is this beautiful thing called life.

Are we agog and smiling yet?

For more on the Colorama Display give the Kodakery Podcast a listen!

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