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22 Beautiful Color Snapshots From America's Past

"Color opens a whole new world, a whole new way of looking at and thinking about the past."

Posted on March 21, 2018, at 4:46 p.m. ET

June 27, 1941: Doris Irwin of American Airlines in Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

June 27, 1941: Doris Irwin of American Airlines in Chicago.

Before 2003, amateur photographer Charles W. Cushman was entirely unknown. After his passing in 1972, the thousands of pictures he made over the course of his lifetime were donated to his alma mater, Indiana University, by his wife Elizabeth. Cushman's passion for photography led him to experiment with color film, at the time a new and emerging technology, which offered an additional dimension of realism to photos of an era often depicted in black-and-white images.

Bradley D. Cook is the curator of photographs at Indiana University and an expert on the university's Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection. Here, Cook shares with BuzzFeed News a selection of the some of the most stunning and historically significant photos from the collection, as well as insight into the passionate photographer behind the work:

The Cushman collection is both historically and culturally important, particularly from the 1930s through the 1950s, in the way it depicts the people and places of a time that we are only used to seeing in black and white. Color opens a whole new world, a whole new way of looking at and thinking about the past. Just think how differently we would look at history if we had actual color photographs of important historical events and places.

His collection is also significant in that he numbered each image and had corresponding entries in his notebooks that tell us where he was, sometimes down to the specific address, and what he was shooting. This makes each image a very good record — imagine the same images with no corresponding information of dates, places, and events. It’s that information, along with the images, which make his photographs significant. [Editor's note: The photo captions below, which have been edited for clarity, are based on entries from Cushman's notebooks.]

Oct. 19, 1958: Sunday on Maxwell St., Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Oct. 19, 1958: Sunday on Maxwell St., Chicago.

June 6, 1941: Three men from South Ferry flophouses at Battery Park, NYC.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

June 6, 1941: Three men from South Ferry flophouses at Battery Park, NYC.

July 20, 1941: Judy Sargent and blond friend stroll along the lake shore in Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

July 20, 1941: Judy Sargent and blond friend stroll along the lake shore in Chicago.

Before the Cushman collection went live in late October 2003, Cushman himself would have virtually been an unknown person. He was from Poseyville, Indiana, and graduated from Indiana University in 1917. He joined the Navy during World War I and worked for various companies in Chicago before joining the brewery company Drewrys.

The Cushman collection contains approximately 14,500 35 mm color slides, most of which are photographed on Kodak Kodachrome. We also have one of Cushman’s cameras, a tripod, his camera bag, and all of the black-and-white negatives he shot before and during the early years when he was shooting his color slides.

Oct. 19, 1958: Traffic tie-up on South Halsted St. near Maxwell St., Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Oct. 19, 1958: Traffic tie-up on South Halsted St. near Maxwell St., Chicago.

March 4, 1949: Leonard Junior Brown and two little sisters in their home at 230 West 23rd St., Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

March 4, 1949: Leonard Junior Brown and two little sisters in their home at 230 West 23rd St., Chicago.

June 17, 1944: Cigarette girl. (Unspecified location in Illinois.)
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

June 17, 1944: Cigarette girl. (Unspecified location in Illinois.)

I first rediscovered the collection, kept in the original suitcases they were sent in to the Indiana University archives, some 20 years before I even started working here. A week still does not go by that I don't receive some kind of request for either a print of an image or a request to use one of the images in a documentary, journal article, newspaper, or magazine article. I have loved every minute of working with the Cushman collection.

People still email me, 15 years after the collection went live, to say how much they loved browsing through the images. That's very satisfying. Although one time I did have someone contact me to tell me how much they hated the Cushman collection, because they were browsing it all day at work and not getting anything done!

It's also gratifying when I receive messages from people who want to add information about a particular store their family owned, or that their grandparents met at that church, or in a case just this week in which someone identified their grandmother and a few other people in a particular image. Corresponding with people like that gives me immense pleasure.

March 28, 1949: Confectionary cart at Lexington and Dekalb, Chicago."
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

March 28, 1949: Confectionary cart at Lexington and Dekalb, Chicago."

July 26, 1940: Street shower in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

July 26, 1940: Street shower in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Oct. 1, 1950: Sunday at Newberry and Maxwell Sts., Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Oct. 1, 1950: Sunday at Newberry and Maxwell Sts., Chicago.

Dec. 14, 1951: View up Canal St. from Bourbon 11 nights before Christmas in New Orleans.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Dec. 14, 1951: View up Canal St. from Bourbon 11 nights before Christmas in New Orleans.

As for his use of color photography, I think many of us, subconsciously, think the old “black-and-white days” are a different world. When I view Cushman’s color images it reminds me — in a way that black-and-white photography does not — that these people are just like us.

They had the same kinds of worries and concerns we still have today. They, for the most part, had fun the way we do today, and I hope when people today view the collection they have the same kinds of thoughts the people depicted in these images had in their day.

Oct. 1944: Al Swanson and future bride in Jackson Park flower garden, Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Oct. 1944: Al Swanson and future bride in Jackson Park flower garden, Chicago.

July 11, 1942: Gallagher-Swayne wedding party in Wheaton, Illinois.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

July 11, 1942: Gallagher-Swayne wedding party in Wheaton, Illinois.

Feb. 1, 1941: A hamlet in south central Pennsylvania near a highway.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Feb. 1, 1941: A hamlet in south central Pennsylvania near a highway.

Oct. 31, 1952: Pre-Halloween party group in Central City, Colorado.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Oct. 31, 1952: Pre-Halloween party group in Central City, Colorado.

Aug. 9, 1941: Elephants coupled up for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Aug. 9, 1941: Elephants coupled up for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Chicago.

Aug. 2, 1947: Clowns pose on opening day at Ringling circus in Chicago.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Aug. 2, 1947: Clowns pose on opening day at Ringling circus in Chicago.

April 1940: Emmet Flynn as Old Leather Face on the set of the movie Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

April 1940: Emmet Flynn as Old Leather Face on the set of the movie Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Jan. 20, 1952: Four Mexican children on their way to Sonoyta, Sonora, on Sunday afternoon.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Jan. 20, 1952: Four Mexican children on their way to Sonoyta, Sonora, on Sunday afternoon.

Nov. 29, 1939: The view from Yavapai Point across from Wotans Throne and Vishnu Temple in the Grand Canyon Village, Arizona.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Nov. 29, 1939: The view from Yavapai Point across from Wotans Throne and Vishnu Temple in the Grand Canyon Village, Arizona.

Feb. 23, 1940: Rodeo parade in Tucson, Arizona.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

Feb. 23, 1940: Rodeo parade in Tucson, Arizona.

November 1938: Tall corn in the Wabash Bottoms near Grand Chain Farm, Posey County, Indiana.
Charles W. Cushman Photography Collection / Indiana University Archives

November 1938: Tall corn in the Wabash Bottoms near Grand Chain Farm, Posey County, Indiana.

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