Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection
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Color Film and Curiosity: Charles Cushman in Photographic Context

Rich Remsberg is a documentary photographer with a strong interest in vernacular photography. He is the author/photographer of Riders for God: The Story of a Christian Motorcycle Gang, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, MSNBC/Newsweek, and DoubleTake. He is a contributing photographer to the Indiana Historical Society's Heartland Documentary Project and has taught on the faculty of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center Field School. His project on vernacular photography, Common Pictures, is currently under development. In addition to working on his own projects, he is a consultant on several programs for PBS.

Farm scene, Marrs Twp., Posey county Indiana The collection of Charles Cushman's Kodachrome slides is a rare find and a truly remarkable body of work. The photographs, which span from 1938 to his death in 1972, are the legacy of a man with a good photographic eye, a solid sense of history and social dynamics, and a profound curiosity.

Consisting of almost fifteen thousand images and representing everything from urban slums to mule auctions, Jewish jewelry shops to the gravel industry and the filming of B movies, they are nearly all beautifully preserved in vivid color with detailed supporting notes.

Two little neghbors of the Browns The collection is a photographic document of American social history in the twentieth century. Where similar bodies of both professional and vernacular photography tend to focus on specific subjects or geographic areas, often during narrow periods of time, Charles Cushman's photographs comprise a vast sweep, covering a large portion of the United States—and to some extent other countries—in a span covering five decades [1].

These slides are rarer and more remarkable because of the type of man Cushman was.

Charles Weever Cushman was born in Posey County, Indiana, in 1896, to parents who were described by his widow, Elizabeth [2], as "leaders of the town." As an adult living in Chicago and San Francisco, Cushman developed refined tastes for opera, salons, and five o'clock drinks overlooking the ocean. "I don't want to suggest that Charles was a snob," Elizabeth said, "but he was." On another occasion she described him by saying, "He was a man who loved beauty. He wasn't too much on patience."

Although he was a man of means and had cultivated tastes, it would be wrong to leave his character at that. Elizabeth has also said that he was intensely curious, always interested in people, and was an uncannily good judge of character. "He had a deep interest in society as a whole, from a political science standpoint." Later she mentioned, "He was more spiritual than he let on that he was."

He was also interested in photography from a young age. As early as 1915 (and probably earlier) he was photographing friends and making modest attempts at more formal aesthetic photography, and by 1938 he became an early user of the revolutionary color process, Kodachrome.

He traveled quite a bit, largely for his job assessing businesses for Standard Statistics, a precursor to Standard & Poor. Later, as he was in a position to do so, he traveled purely for pleasure.

Three bums from South Ferry flophouses By the combination of his travels, his interest in people, and his intense curiosity, he produced a unique photographic record of twentieth-century America. He photographed a surprising amount of important historical moments and conditions, including unemployed men in Battery Park during the Depression, salvage wagons of World War II, a Goldwater rally, and the Haight during the Summer of Love.

Haight street hippies San Francisco Even during war years, he managed to travel, mainly by automobile [3], and photograph, leaving us what is perhaps the greatest collection of color photographs of civilian life during the war.

He produced photographs even in his later years as a tourist on group tours in Europe and the Middle East—although his pictures are significantly different than the type and quality that usually result from that sort of travel.

According to Elizabeth, he considered his photographs to be superior to those of other photographers. "I think he was a little snobbish that his photography was probably better."

We know that he held occasional slide shows in which he was very particular about placement and sequencing and that he "took great satisfaction in doing a good job," but there is some question as to who he considered to be "other photographers." There is nothing that suggests he was interested in, or even aware of, modernist photography as a self-conscious fine art [4].

My speculation, based on intuitive feel, familiarity with his work, and lack of evidence to the contrary, is that he considered himself a very good amateur photographer and better than others of that league—which he was. He was a very sophisticated man, and, I believe in a general way, that informed his photography. But there is little to suggest that he was schooled in the deliberate art of Stieglitz, Moholy-Nagy, or the like.

Nevertheless, his work falls, if unwittingly and sometimes after the fact, into several important traditions of cultivated photography: color photography, the work of the dedicated amateur, social documentary photography, and street photography.


Color photography

Annapolis Half block from Capitol Kodachrome, the first modern color film, was introduced in a 35mm still camera format in 1936. There were earlier color processes, such as autochrome, but none had the clarity, speed, exposure latitude, or tight grain that Kodachrome had. It was above all, a more natural color, and nothing like it in photography had been seen before.

Breakthrough that it was, widespread use of Kodachrome would not begin until after World War II. It was expensive, still slower than most films, and often more difficult to expose than black and white film.

Cushman began shooting with Kodachrome as early as 1938. That was a year before the Wizard of Oz or the New York World's Fair. The Dust Bowl had begun only four years earlier and was not yet over. There were still thousands of Civil War veterans alive in 1938, and television would not begin regular color broadcasts for another thirteen years.

Looking at Cushman's photographs today, their immediacy is striking. We are used to seeing images from that era—and of those subjects—only in black and white.

An interesting comparison is Cushman's color images of Chicago in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the black-and-white images of the same city—sometimes the same neighborhoods—made by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers around the same time [5].

Gypsies live here. 620 Maxwell St. Many of their subjects are the same: African-American neighborhoods, "Gypsies," slums, railroads, Maxwell Street. Both bodies of work are photographically excellent and historically important. It would be difficult—and pointless—to say which is better, but the difference in the emotional response and sense of connection for those of us seeing Cushman's color slides in the early twenty-first century is powerful and a very different experience than seeing black and white pictures of similar situations.

Portable soft drink stand at Bowling GreenToday, most people's mental pictures of the world before the 1950s are in black and white. That's often true even for people who were alive then and remember those years. This mental imagery cannot help but shape our notions of the past by abstracting that experience—whether personal or collective, actually lived or culturally inherited—and converting it to a system of signs and symbols.

A.D. Coleman writes,

Monochrome photographs ... whether black and white or sepia toned or cyanotype, inherently signal to us—by the very absence of full color in their representation of the world—that they're abstractions, derivations, or something other than the situations, objects, and spaces they depict. By eliminating obvious evidence of the transformative function of photography and giving us a world that more effectively replicates the one we see with our own eyes, color photography makes the medium that much more transparent, credible, and effectively illusory: more tactile, more sensory, more persuasive; less like reports about reality and more like actual slices of the real. (Coleman 8)

This speaks to the understated use of color by such photographers as William Albert Allard and Susan Meiselas, where reading their photographs is natural and effortless. This approach creates a visual transparency and suggests an absence of the photographer, and it allows the viewer to interact psychologically and emotionally with the image more directly.

In a different vein, there is the color photography of the "New Photojournalism," such as the discomforting chromaticism of Martin Parr or Carl De Keyser, or the highly saturated color and use of chiaroscuro in the work of Alex Webb or Costa Manos. Theirs is an approach with overblown color, creating a vividness, often a gaudiness, that complements the complex compositions and surreal moments depicted. As often as not, it is driven more strongly by formalist rather than experiential concerns.

Fish market-Golden Horn Cushman's vision seems to fall somewhere between these two styles. He is obviously delighted to notice and to use intensely saturated color—often with quirky placement within its environment—and uses it effectively and abundantly. Although his use of color is sometimes obvious, he does not go out of his way—by composition, framing, proximity, or lighting—to exploit or abstract it. His shots recognize the delight in, and sometimes the audacity and absurdity of, the colors in front of his camera. However, the presence of color always remains anchored in a sense of naturalism. In this regard, perhaps his photos are most similar to Harry Callahan's later work.

This approach to color, when taken with Cushman's organic composition and ease with people, creates an integrity of vision that is well described by John Szarkowski in an observation of, ironically, a black and white photographer, Eugene Atget:

All of Atget's pictures are informed by a precise visual intelligence, by the clarté that is the highest virtue of the classic French tradition. This quality was achieved not by impeccable technique, but by discovering precisely what one meant to say, and saying neither more nor less. (Szarkowski 17)


Dedicated amateur

Although Atget was uncompromising about the way he worked and his taste in photographic subjects, his end result—reference photos for painters—was a commercial product. Cushman, on the other hand, was financially independent and strictly an amateur.

The status of amateurs in photography is an interesting one. To Alfred Steiglitz, to be an amateur was to be set apart from—and above—professional photographers. It meant not having one's vision soiled by the compromise of commercialism. More recently, the term has had lesser connotations, usually associated with dilettantes or wannabes who lack the ability to be professionals. Perhaps it is best to say that amateurs are what they are, and there are a variety of reasons to be one.

Pride or shortcomings laid aside, amateurs with long-term, focused passions have added significantly to the canons of many disciplines.

From bird counts to tracking sunspots, the sciences have benefited from their efforts. The story of the Oxford English Dictionary's creation has recently celebrated its crucial amateur contributions, particularly on the part of Dr. John Murray from his room at a Scottish insane asylum. Irish music owes an immeasurable debt to the work of Francis O'Neill, a nineteenth-century Chicago police superintendent who is responsible for an unmatched collection of traditional tunes. And the boundaries of the art world are expanded, and often the edge defined, by such outsider artists as Howard Finster, Henry Darger, and A.G. Rizzoli.

To find a good example of this spirit in the annals of photography, we need look no further than Jacob Riis. As a police reporter-turned-social reformer on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1890s, Riis, like Cushman, employed new photo technology. In Riis's case, it was roll film and magnesium flash powder, which he used to make photographs that exposed the living conditions in New York's slums and advocate for reform. In the course of doing this, he laid the foundation for the tradition of socially concerned documentary photography. [6]

Perhaps it would be a little grand to suggest that Cushman's contributions advanced photography to the degree that those of Riis or amateur photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, or Manuel Alvarez Bravo did. However, there has always been a stream of people who have used photography in the service of other disciplines or interests—ethnography, social advocacy, astronomy, and so forth—and in doing so create photographs of considerable artistic merit. This category of visual imagery, which now falls under the heading of "vernacular photography," is often the product of amateurs who can provide time, access, or perspective unavailable to professionals.

Consider a deep body of photographic work such as the twenty-six years of documentation of Hudson Bay Inuits done by whaling captain George Comer [7], Edward Kelty's photos of the circus world (Barth and Siegel), or Maggie Lee Sayre's pictures of her family's life on a houseboat (Rankin). Jacob Holdt created a significant body of photographic work in American Pictures, an unprecedented view into the lives of the American underclass that he photographed using a point-and-shoot camera and selling his blood plasma to buy film [8].

The list of amateur and vernacular photographers who have left this type of oeuvre created out of long-term passion is extensive, most working in relative obscurity. It is in this vein of dedicated amateurs that Charles Cushman's work was created.

His job, assessing businesses for Standard Stastistics, was an important factor in his photography. It required him to travel, and this put him in a number of locations around the country. It also gave him access to a variety of types of businesses and people. In addition to his job, he had, as Elizabeth put it, a "talent for picking relatives who died at convenient times." Eventually, he managed investments for himself, his first wife, Jean, and her mother. He did this well enough that he could travel for travel's sake, allowing him to wander and photograph.

In this venture, it could be said that Cushman opted to go wide rather than deep. That is to say that over the long period of time that he worked, he casually photographed many subjects in many places as opposed to committing to one subject and photographing through its layers of depth as Atget did with Paris or O. Winston Link with trains.

I think that's fair. However, another way to look at it is that he went deep with his own eye, his curiosity, and his own experience. In this he shared something of the lyricism that Colin Westerbeck identifies in Henri Cartier-Bresson:

As opposed to the tragic poet, who tries to read in other men's fates the moral laws of the universe, the lyric poet tells us what is in himself. Singing his song in the first-person singular, he reveals primarily his own emotions and character. (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 155)



Like the photographers of the FSA, Smith, Riis, and the other artists and journalists mentioned earlier, Cushman was a documentary photographer. According to Elizabeth, "He was interested in political trends of the time."

Most of his early black-and-white work [9], beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, was a mix of snapshots—mostly of friends—and more aesthetically high-minded efforts. These early works deal mainly with traditional Pictorialist imagery: Gothic buildings, clever plays of light and shadow, snowstorms, reflections in puddles, and so forth.

There appears to be no posing or manipulation, and that gives these photographs, in addition to whatever formal accomplishments they might claim, a certain documentary quality and value.

During this period, one can see his more overt documentary sensibilities emerging. Snowstorms in lamplight increasingly give way to subways, WPA workers on break, relief lines, Appalachian shacks, an organ grinder with his monkey, railroad yards, street denizens, and other subjects that we tend to associate with documentary photography and that speak more directly to the human condition.

By the late 1930s, Cushman, though still compelled by aesthetics, photographed with the eye of a documentary photographer. Represented in the collection are social and economic history's broad issues, including industry, urban life, entertainment, labor, transportation, the counter culture, and (largely vernacular) architecture.

It is likely that many of his photographs are the only known records of some subjects. In most cases, they are probably the only color record and almost certainly the only color record to be preserved and documented so well.

Although he had some consistent thematic areas of interest, the occasions of Cushman's photography seem to have been chosen by the whims of his curiosity. As a result, his subjects are extensive and diverse. He worked from his own organic sensibilities, but his subjects very closely parallel Roy Stryker's list of suggested photographic studies for the FSA (Rothstein 164-168).

Emmett Kelly Tramp clown of Ringling Circus Chicago The complete list of his subjects is vast—and a little staggering. The intriguing tip of that iceberg includes: fires, floods, train wrecks, annual behind-the-scenes coverage of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, a wedding in Boston's Little Italy, train yards (including specific identifiable trains), harbors (including specific identifiable boats—riverboats, tugs, ocean liners, ore carriers, abandoned ships, etc.), a Polish Independence Day Parade and other ethnicCB & Q wreck Naperville. Tangled mass of Diner. festivals, street vendors, ethnically changing neighborhoods, people, houses, streets, churches, synagogues, saloons, tiendas, the border patrol, passengers debarking from trains on both sides of U.S./Mexico border towns, advertisements, the steel industry, the gravel industry, the lumber industry, the sugar cane industry (including workers, mills, and "workers' huts"), mining, ghost towns, farms, the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1948, Indian reservations, Hispanic and African-American cotton pickers, building demolitions, adult movie theaters, and individual characters he met during his travels (such as a woman walking across the country, a man in San Francisco with his pet raccoon, and a long white-haired man living with his dogs outside of Moab, Utah and identified both by name and as a "former world traveler").

He was attracted not only to people but to the culture they created: housing, entertainment, storefronts, storefront churches, signs, and always the evanescent human details of everyday life.

1351 South Sangamon St. ChgoLike the photographers of the FSA, and like Atget, at least as often as not what is documented are details of the commonplace and its passing, both in fact and mood. Again, Szarkowski's description of Atget applies:

Atget's sense of history was not restricted to the past; throughout his career he was alert to ordinary contemporary things, the importance of which was camouflaged by their commonness: window displays in the new department stores, the contents of simple rooms, the techniques of commerce and of popular amusement, and the omnipresent, invisible people of the street. (Szarkowski 8)

Also like the FSA and Atget, he was particularly compelled by subjects on the verge of demolition, extinction, or obsolescence. "He saw how he could foresee things changing, society changing, and how temporary some facets of life happen," Elizabeth said.

Along with a sharp sense of the present, they all shared an impulse for preservation, by means of photographic record. More than that, though, there is a shared aesthetic quality—perhaps most visible in Walker Evans's photographs but present in all—a recognition that there is a close relationship among beauty, sadness, and loss.

Food and drink Store at 1000 Maxwell St Aiding his keen instinct for people and society was Cushman's uncanny knack for being at historically interesting moments. From numerous constructions, demolitions, and disasters, to the Sunday market at Maxwell Street or the Haight during the Summer of Love, Cushman was there with his camera, color film, and a sense of the important. According to Elizabeth, he never used a police scanner or other aid in finding these situations; he just happened into them.

His captions are generally informative and sometimes evocative. They range from identification of a city or a person's name to more elaborate descriptions such as, "Two Negro women read the mail near Monsanto chemical plant at Anniston, Ala." or "Monday wash in a dust storm in Mexican section at South El Paso, Texas. Dec. 31, 1951."

Hilton Hotel woman in reds Some scenes depicted are of specific moments with overt historical significance, such as the Goldwater supporters at the 1964 Republican National Convention, the demolition of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, or a train wreck that led to legislation for better safety regulations. Others represent more general socio-economic conditions equally important to history: his shots of neighborhoods and industry, Red Cross salvage drives, or municipal overviews.

His pictures are perhaps most valuable and intriguing when they contain elements that challenge received notions of history. As with many of the photographs of the FSA, Cushman's often contain the kind of human details and elements that don't always fit tidily into categories, details that are usually omitted when time and experience are compressed and organized into the narrative of history.

Side of pink brick at 3625 Federal There are moments that are direct challenges, such as the shot of a Chicago peddler with a horse and wagon in 1949. This shows a very different 1949 than the one more commonly represented by (black and white) newsreels of modular housing going up in Levittown.

Just as important are the evanescent, sometimes quirky details of everyday life, such as a shack made out of old doors or a coal sign in a window, a potato vendor on the street in Manhattan, or kids playing in puddles from a fire hydrant.

The documentation, however, goes beyond fact. What is especially compelling about Cushman's photographs is the mood they convey.

Three bums from South Ferry flophouses, at Battery Park Take, for instance, his photograph captioned, "Three bums from South Ferry flophouses. At Battery Park, N.Y.C. June 6, 1941" (right). In that image and its accompanying caption we can find a number of historical facts (what these people looked like, their race, where they spent time, the contemporary language used to identify them); we find nuances (the tilt of their hats, the way the nearest man holds his cigarette or the farthest props his chin on his hand, they appear more composed than most homeless people today); there are challenges to received history (all three "bums" are wearing jackets and two are wearing ties). There is a lot of information in the image, but information alone doesn't cover it. Cushman's photograph creates a cinematic density about the situation that evokes a mood and evokes it powerfully.

The same can be said about many other frames, such as the town view of Johnstown, Pennsylvania and the Passenger Boat Piers in Baltimore, Maryland.

Haight Street Hippy Frequently, that emotional intensity surrounds an image of very plain circumstances, such as people walking down the street or standing in doorways. In many ways what is most compelling about his shots of the Summer of Love is the feeling of ordinariness they convey, in contrast to the overblown psychedelic swirls and color bursts in which it is usually represented and remembered.

Much of that evocative quality comes from the images being in color. We are not used to seeing most of these situations in color. When we do it is generally a recreation in the movies, and perhaps that is our subconscious association. There is also a power that comes from the simplicity and directness of his point of view, both in terms of composition and in his impartiality.

The FSA was created with the political motivations of the New Deal behind it; the Photo League worked with strong leftist ideology; Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and W. Eugene Smith were passionately advocating for social reform; Edward Steichen was making a deliberate point with the Family of Man exhibition. They all resulted in tremendous, lasting photographs, but Cushman's photos, though they are created with the same compassion and respect, are a little different.

It is not hard to infer, from what we know of him, that Cushman had strong political understandings, and most likely clear preferences. He does not, however, in his photography, exhibit an agenda. Rather than pleading cases or sounding alarms, he is, in the purest documentary form, making plain observations.


Street photography

no description available In the modernist manner of Paul Strand's street photography, Cushman's images are generally composed without standard formalism or abstraction; they strive to look directly at a subject. He found in public what Strand called "people involved in the daily process of living."

C.B.& Q wreck at Naperville
Along with Strand, Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank, Cushman engaged in a tradition of photography that recognizes the street as theater. In this, his love of opera served him well. While his vision might have been lyric, he had a flair for tragic imagery. His pictures remind us that the daily process of living consists not only of walking down the street or the routines of working but can also involve fires, train wrecks, and a changing world.

Today Kodachrome is usually associated with retro, post-war, proto-suburban, nuclear family America, a white middle class dazzled by its comfort and convenience, its automobiles, cook-outs, vacations, and, above all, by what it looked like to itself.

Old iron gate. Negro on curb. While society was engaged in this migration toward more private social lives, Cushman seemed uninterested in the self-referential mood of the time and turned to look outward at the crowd, in a spirit more akin to Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank (and later Garry Winogrand). Perhaps his attraction to public life was consistent with his instincts for photographing things on the verge of extinction. Regardless, by doing so, he became involved in a rich tradition of street photography that begins with Cartier-Bresson.

Portrait. Jackson Square. New Orleans. Like Cartier-Bresson, beginning in the 1930s, Cushman worked with a small, hand-held 35mm camera—in Cushman's case, a Contax II. In addition to the geometric virtues of a 2:3 aspect ratio, this format introduced unprecedented spontaneity and an ability to work from intuition.

While Cartier-Bresson observed by passionately maintaining his "invisibility," it seems that Cushman sometimes worked that way and other times was more interactive. Elizabeth has noted that he could, at times, be fairly antisocial. "When he got into a crowd, though, he could display a great deal of charm."

Daisy Chains Golden Gate Park He clearly had a warmth and a way with people. In general, judging from his photos, they trusted him and appeared natural and at ease responding to him. There are a few frames that suggest subjects who did not want to be photographed, such as the man on the Haight giving him the finger and possibly the old woman hobo on Highway 140. There are many where the subjects were unaware of Cushman's camera, and many more that imply consent and engagement.

As a Surrealist, Cartier-Bresson shunned manipulation and tonal elegance, forging a style that has been called "anti-photography," "the artless art," and several other terms that attempt to describe his pictures that are "perfect in their imperfection."

Cushman was no Surrealist. He (most likely) lacked a theory of art, as well as the class rejection, avant-garde weirdness, and sense of moral crisis that drove and defined the Surrealists. The photographic spontaneity that Cartier-Bresson developed was of the same thought as Andre Breton's spontaneous writing; with Cushman, it was undoubtedly more a matter of convenient, well-made cameras being available to consumers. However, the end results share some common ground.

Both Cartier-Bresson's and Cushman's approaches rejected (perhaps it is even fair to say rebelled against) the sentiments and controlled manner of Pictorialism. They thrived on exotic wildness and unpredictability and spoke in a language of the commonplace. They shared an attraction to a quality of primitivism of the streets, often seeking out the poorest neighborhoods, drawn to an "open sensuality," in Peter Galassi's words, "provided by the gritty vitality of the primitive" (Galassi 17).

Easter lamb Good Friday in Athens Meat Market Also, the two photographers bear some similarity in their realization that the wedding of photography and travel could be a way of life. As Galassi said about Cartier-Bresson in his twenties, "photography, which had grown out of traveling, now fueled it" (Galassi 20).

Heraklion For all the tapping of the subconscious and anti-photography Cartier-Bresson engaged in, he was still a consummate formalist. His photographs were, after all, "perfect in their imperfection." Although they were created in a spirit of wildness and spontaneity, he edited with great self-awareness and control, and he selected individual frames for their acute precision of moment and compositional arrangement.

In this regard, then, Cushman bears a greater resemblance to the street photographer who built on Cartier-Bresson's spirit and broke all of his rules: Robert Frank. Viewed in contrast to Pictorialism and other formally elegant schools of photography, Robert Frank's The Americans is much like Cartier-Bresson's work. In a more direct comparison of only the two, there is a world of difference.

Fisherman's Wharf In his departure from Cartier-Bresson's form, Frank creates a way of seeing that is truly based on intuition and infused with a sense of improvisation. Where Cartier-Bresson is known for his "decisive moment"—the crisp, serendipitous fraction of a second when meaning intersects with geometric arrangement—Frank made pictures that fell between moments and had more ambiguous meaning. It is a style that resonates more with Abstract Expressionism than with Surrealism. Sometimes this approach is referred to as the "indecisive moment."

977 Rush St. Chicago Cushman's photography is different than Frank's in ways that are numerous and obvious. Again, though, the similarities are significant.

Frank aspired to create a sort of visual silence, anticlimactic photographs steeped in mystery and ambiguity, free not only from formal elegance and control but from cleverness, specific definition, and other impositions. This created a naturalism about the vision and established a direct immediacy between the scene depicted and the viewer.

Mission St. at 3rd st. San Francisco Cushman approached it differently—more innocently, perhaps. Where Frank was (and is) working out of a specifically photographic sophistication, I would suggest that Cushman was a sophisticated person in general; that quality informed his photography, but he was not photographically sophisticated in the regular, cultivated sense, and his artistic intent was less developed than Frank's.

Just the same, the resulting photographs share that quality.

Like Frank—or even a Regionalist painter like Thomas Hart Benton—Cushman's images find their real impact partly in the depth and complexity of a single moment but more on the totality of continuity and the sense of passage from one image to another.

Asleep by the Deep. Embarcadero. Although Frank is Swiss by birth, there is also a very American quality they both share that Cartier-Bresson does not. Something in the attitude, the friendliness, the sense of loss, and their Whitmanesque character—what Jack Kerouac appreciated in The Americans as "the humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures" (Kerouac 6).

South Chicago- vacant lot near Steel mills.Most powerfully, though, Cushman shares Frank's sense of the existential witness. This quality is, by definition, present to some degree in nearly all photographers, but it is strongest and the most compelling in The Americans. In a comment that belies its sophistication, Frank has said, "most of my photographs are ... seen simply, as through the eyes of the man in the street" (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 352).


Cushman's use of color and sense of composition combined with his unusually broad scope and uncanny ability to be present at significant moments provide us with a natural vision of these deep cultural conditions and events. He sees the world and its people in ways they may not see themselves. It is truthful, revealing, and it describes complex and difficult human situations without moral judgment but with a certain existential scrutiny.

Cushman obviously had a good way with people and made them feel immediately at ease, but his relationships with his subjects never progressed to going into their homes or other, more intimate situations. Surely, that is largely the sign of the manners of a more formal person. However the result is that his pictures maintain a view of what anyone could have seen had he or she been present and paying attention. He did not try to be clever. He did not crusade for justice or reform. He was driven by curiosity and a sense of theater, and he left a photographic record for those of us who, by age, distance, inclination, or schedule conflict, were not present. Or, for that matter, those who were.

One last applicable thought about Atget from John Szarkowski:

One might say that the mystery of Atget's work lies in the sense of plastic ease, fluidity, and responsiveness with which his personal perceptions seem to achieve perfect identity with objective fact. There is in his work no sense of the artist triumphing over intractable, antagonistic life; nor, in the best work, any sense of the poetic impulse being defeated by the lumpen materiality of the real world. It is rather as though the world itself were a finished work of art, coherent, surprising, and well constructed from any possible vantage point, and Atget's photographs of it no more than a natural and sweet-minded payment of homage (Szarkowski 12).



1 For comparison, although their black and white output was considerably more, the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information created 1,600 color images in a six-year period.

2 Most biographical information about Charles Cushman comes from Rich Remsberg's telephone interviews and correspondence with Charles's second wife, Elizabeth Cushman, 1998-2003. Some additional information comes from letters written by Charles or Elizabeth Cushman to the Indiana University Foundation, 1966-1989.

3 He had connections in Washington, DC through his first wife, Jean, and it appears that it was through them that he was able to obtain ration stamps for gasoline.

4 He did photograph quite a few paintings he saw—and presumably admired—in museums. In this section of his work there are no photographs of other photographs.

5 The FSA/OWI did create approximately 1,600 images in color between 1939 and 1945; 134 of these were in Chicago. All of the color Chicago images are from Jack Delano's 1942 photo essay on railroads for the Office of War Information. For greater depth, I recommend Reid and Viskochil, although only black & white photographs appear here. For even greater depth and to see the images in color, many of the FSA images can be found online from the Library of Congress's American Memory project at Direct access to the FSA color images in American Memory is available from, and access to the the Chicago images is available from

6 The text of Riis' New York tenement study, How the Other Half Lives, is available from The illustrations for this book are available from

7 There is relatively little material about George Comer online. The bulk of his collection is at Mystic Seaport <> in Connecticut, but the photographs are not available online.

8 Professional photographers who have gone deep and inside with their subjects often did so out of a personal passion and beyond the demands of their assignments. O. Winston Link was a commercial photographer, but his extensive documentation of the final days of steam railroads for which he is today remembered was done primarily on his own time, and Eugene Smith's exhaustive photo essay on Pittsburgh went so far beyond what was expected of him professionally the situation resulted in lawsuits and a furious client.

9 Much of Cushman's early black-and-white work is also in the Indiana University Archives and hopefully will someday be brought to greater public view. A "preview" of this material is currently available.


Works Cited

Barth, Miles and Alan Siegel. Step Right this Way: The Photographs of Edward Kelty. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002.

Coleman, A.D. Kodachrome: The American Invention of Our World. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.

Galassi, Peter. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work. New York: MOMA, 1987.

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