Thursday, December 24, 2009

Charles W. Cushman

I recently discovered a photographer whose work has made an indelible impression on me. I am talking about Charles Cushman, a talented amateur photographer whose 14,500 Kodachrome pictures (or three cubic feet) from the late 1930s through the late 60s are held at the Indiana University Archives. As part of the University's Digital Library Program, the Cushman Archive has been digitized and organized into a keyword-searchable database and can be found in its entirety here. While I've only viewed about a third of the entire archive, I'm pretty sure there isn't much I can add to what's already been written about the man and his work. Here's one line from the project's descriptive text that I feel really nails what the work is all about: "The Charles Cushman collection mirrors the tradition of significant amateur or modest commercial photographers who contribute to the canon of serious photography." I recommend you read Rich Remberg's analysis of Cushman's work in the context of other documentary photographers, and Eric Sandweiss' account of the growth of urban America, as seen through Cushman's Contax. Speaking of his Contax, you can view his equipment here. (Above: "Oct. 6, 1942, The Angelo's Bakery, 58 Mulberry St., early morning." Image number P02700)"

Born in 1896 in Poseyville, Indiana, Cushman enrolled at Indiana University in 1914 and graduated in 1917. The following year he enlisted in the United States Navy Auxiliary Reserve Force, which put him in Chicago. In 1924 he married Elsa Jean Hamilton, who was a first cousin of John Steinbeck. Cushman held various jobs over the next couple decades. Very little is known about his career after 1944, when he worked at the War Department (a precursor of the Department of Defense). It was said that Cushman enjoyed attending the opera and the theater, and presenting shows of his slide collection. After moving to San Francisco sometime in the 1950s he would enjoy having a five o'clock drink while overlooking the ocean. Cushman died in 1972. (Right: "May 22, 1964, Salzburg, Austria." Image number P13231)

Since the Cushman archive was posted on the web in late 2003, the work has spread around somewhat and a bit has been written about him. I discovered Cushman's pictures on Flickr while researching something else. The first ones I came across were taken in New York City, mostly in the Financial District and the Lower East Side. But it didn't take long to discover that Cushman had photographed all over the world. For the purposes of this entry I simply want to post imagery from New York. (Below: "October 4, 1942, Lower East Side, crowd gathers in front of Red Cross station during salvage collection." Image number P02680)
There is just a ton of material on the site, including his notebooks in which he recorded not only location and date of photographs, but shutter speed and aperture for each and every frame exposed. More from the explanatory text: "The earliest photographs in the collection consist of approximately 1,400 black-and-white photographs that Mr. Cushman stored in albums. However, the most startling and significant aspect of his work relates to the photographs he began shooting in 1938, two years after the introduction of Kodachrome. Between 1938 and 1969 Mr. Cushman shot nearly 18,000 Kodachrome slides, documenting his travels throughout the United States and Mexico and, to some extent, countries in the Middle East and Europe. His legacy is a remarkable photographic document of American social history in the twentieth century. Where other works of this nature and caliber each focus on one community during a narrow period, Charles Cushman's slides cover thirty years, in color, including a time when most photographers were working in black and white. Although the black and white photographs are of high quality, the most significant portion of the collection is the color slides, due to the size of the collection, the rarity of early color, and the urgency to preserve these images." (Below: "Oct. 7, 1942, Chinese store windows, New York." Image number P02708)
A friend asked me recently about my influences in photography. I replied, with Cushman squarely in mind, "More and more, it's the people nobody has ever heard of. I love coming across lesser-known photographers who worked more or less anonymously, for the simple joy of photography." I love it when I can look at a photographer's work and not sense any "ego" involved; humble and evidentiary photography with no gimmicks or reliance upon technical trickery. In this sense, Cushman reminds me of photographers Robert Otter, Fred Herzog, and the more recently discovered Vivian Maier, just to name a few. Another photographer who is definitely more well known than these, but yet remains still somewhat obscure, is William Gedney. In fact, the way this Cushman archive is set up reminds me quite a bit of the William Gedney archive at Duke University, (which I featured on my other site several years ago).

Another conversation I had recently with a different friend dealt with our own evolving tastes in terms of what we find ourselves photographing. For me, it used to be all about people, crazy characters in particular (and still is to some degree). But now I find myself making a lot more of an effort to just photograph The City: straightforward shots of the skyline, perhaps certain intersections that have a good energy, etc. I've written about Bowery and First quite a bit. Ten years ago it used to be a muddy lot used for parking by rental van companies. It was also a satellite drop-off location where you could ditch your U-Haul, as I did, after making my one-way drive to NYC in 2000. Here is the corner of that intersection (Below: "Oct. 4, 1942, S.E. corner of 1st St. and the Bowery." Image number P02697)
Perhaps it's because this summer I moved to a new neighborhood that is a lot closer to the Financial District and I just sense the pull of downtown a lot more than I used to. Therefore I find myself photographing the changing Lower Manhattan skyline in a much more straightforward manner. Making the skyline the subject instead of just the backdrop. I began sensing this change in my approach right around the same time I discovered Cushman's work. Here is another example of what I'm talking about. Again–simple, straightforward shots of locations, the kind of pictures Cushman made regularly, and I thank him for it. (Below: "Sept. 27, 1941, The old Fulton Market, Manhattan's Lower East Side." Image number P02516)
But I would be remiss if I didn't link to several other shots in Cushman's archive (all links open in new windows, as usual). One evening I spent a couple of hours clicking through his work. At times I laughed out loud, especially when comparing this image to this image. I have taken a lot away from his pictures, especially his San Francisco images. He even got a little bit of the Haight-Ashbury scene. This one caught my eye. Some are straight forward and show only streets, traffic, architecture. Some got a little more into how a street photographer shoots (in some cases even catching some flak for it).

And we can't forget about Chicago, where Cushman called home for many years. A very different Chicago than the one I'm used to (check out this ghostly image of the skyline). Here are some guys fixing an "old" Cadillac. Many are found moments, like this military medical student posing his fiancé on a tree for a snapshot in front of a lake. For some reason I forget that it's color pictures I'm looking at, until I see shots like this girl in a bathing suit. There's this oddity from a Gay Nineties parade. And you must check out this great shot of two young kids looking out their window, part of Cushman's series from Chicago's South Side that looks nothing like this today.

There's some great stuff from Austria including this bus stop scene and this (scanning mishap?) and this incredible balloon situation and this one that has a very timeless appeal. Clearly Cushman was a lover of architecture. Sometimes I felt as if I was seeing him come back to recurring themes, the same shot here and here.

I could go on and on linking to pictures of his, but more than anything I'm just thankful for Cushman's "egoless" approach to photography. It seems his style is only that he has none. I can envision him standing in any given location writing in his notebook, recording street names, camera settings, etc. His work only confirms what I find more and more to be my own guiding M.O. in photography. And that is not to depend so much on my own "cleverness" or "wit" to make a picture, but rather to just find a quiet and steady, disciplined patience that trusts and finds reassurance in a society's perpetual need to look back at itself and its cities, in photographs. (Below: "Sep. 27, 1941, Lower Manhattan from Jersey City ferry boat Lower Hudson, with Manhattan's skyscrapers." Image number P02513)
All images copyright Charles Cushman Collection, Indiana University Archives. With special thanks to Bradley Cook, Curator of Photographs, Office of University Archives and Records Management.