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In the 1990s, photo historian Rich Remsberg made a wonderful discovery: In a trove of boxes headed for the trash, he found a view of American history like he'd never seen it. That is, America in color, as early as 1938.
The photos Remsberg found had been separated from a much larger collection, housed at Indiana University. It had belonged to hobbyist photographer Charles W. Cushman. Fully reunified, the archive contains more than 14,000 photos spanning three decades we typically see in black and white — including one of the first known color photos of a freshly-painted Golden Gate Bridge.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now let's talk about a different kind of film - the kind of film that you used to stick inside cameras before digital cameras came along. Kodak's brilliant color film Kodachrome first came out in the 1930s, but for decades almost nobody used it. NPR's Claire O'Neill tells us the incredible story of a hobbyist who was an early adopter of color film and how the discovery of his archive of 14,000 photos has captivated historians.
RICH REMSBERG: It's like when art historians figured out when Greek statues weren't white -that they were all these gaudy colors.
CLAIRE O'NEILL, BYLINE: That's Rich Remsberg. Technically he's an image archive researcher, and a few years ago, he was helping a retiring professor clean out his office at Indiana University.
REMSBERG: He was throwing away a lot of good stuff.
O'NEILL: So Remsberg saved some of it. Like boxes and boxes of color slides from a black and white era.
REMSBERG: Pretty soon into looking at all these photographs, you know, it started hitting us: these are pretty good. It was just staggering, what a collection this was.
O'NEILL: All the color slides that narrowly escaped the trash were taken by one photographer, whose name was Charles W. Cushman. Historian Eric Sandweiss says Cushman couldn't get enough of color film.
ERIC SANDWEISS: The first time that he loads it into his camera, he turns back and points it at his car. In the background is one of the first color images of a brand new Golden Gate Bridge. And from them on, it's color film for 30 years.
O'NEILL: Charles Cushman was born in 1896, a few decades after photography was born. He went to Indiana University, then moved to Chicago where he edited and wrote for magazines about business and the Depression-era economy - which comes to life in his photos.
REMSBERG: There's one shot of a field in southern Indiana, with two farmers. One of them is sitting on a tractor, and the other one has a team of horses and is standing in a cart. And what a great moment to describe what was happening to the country at that time. So he had this great sense of understanding historic moment.
O'NEILL: Cushman was just a hobbyist, not a professional, and it wasn't easy to get color film back when he was shooting. It's not just remarkable that he did it, but that he did it so much. He shot almost incessantly and took meticulous notes about every photo. He loved to travel - cross-country and abroad - taking pictures of smokestacks, train tracks, but also lyrical landscapes and sunbathers.
In all of his shots though, there's one thing you don't see much of: Cushman's wife, Jean. Here's where the story becomes not just about his work, but about his life. After Jean's father died in 1943 - she came undone.
SANDWEISS: About three weeks after the death, Charles sees Jean at the bottom of the stairs with a revolver in her hands. She shoots Charles twice and then turns the gun on herself. Somehow, they both survive and this night that should have been lights out, became, really, the opening act of the next scene.
O'NEILL: The couple would spend even more time traveling together. Sandweiss estimates that Cushman drove roughly a half-million miles, taking pictures constantly.
SANDWEISS: I think they all represented a momentary release from that trauma of life with Jean. They allowed him to get away himself for a 50th of a second, and then he could come back.
O'NEILL: Charles Cushman stayed together with Jean for decades, until she died in 1969. And all of those years, he shot roll after roll. Rich Rembsberg calls him an existential witness.
REMSBERG: It must have just been overwhelming to him, to see things that beautifully and that tragically. I think the camera was a way of putting a frame around that, codifying it, just being able to deal with it in some way that made it manageable.
You know, a lot of times I think that's what this life is about - is being able to come to terms with the things that you find so overwhelmingly beautiful.
O'NEILL: Though now it's easy for everyone to take pictures and put frames around the things we want to remember. Charles Cushman was one of the few who captured the colors of his day. Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
INSKEEP: To see more of the colors that Charles Cushman captured you can visit our website, npr.org. This is the only radio program that comes to you in color - MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.