812 Logo
812 Logo
SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

In living color

Amateur photographer Charles Cushman has brought history to light through his eye-catching images.

"The crimson coupe in the cornfield. November 1938."

The photographer peers through the viewfinder on a bright November day in 1938. A crimson-colored Coupe sits to the left of the frame, dwarfed by the dried stalks of corn that surround it. Clouds and blue sky fill the top of the shot. The shutter snaps closed as Charles Cushman captures this seemingly insignificant moment on film.

Over a span of 32 years, Cushman would take 14,500 photos, documenting changes in the American landscape. His images show us a time of increasing development and the familiarity of small towns. A natural-born Hoosier, Cushman used his camera as a tool to understand the world around him. What he didn't know was that his hobby would become history.

The 1936 invention of Kodachrome film ushered in the era of colored photography and Cushman was an early adopter of this technology. His photography collection offers a uniquely colorful testimony through the not-quite-perfected process of Kodacrhome. Years later, his images have been brought to light and the tragedy of his personal life exposed. With the recent publication of the book "A Day In Its Color," Cushman and his work are drawing international attention. Photographers, journalists, historians and designers alike are excited by this serendipitous story which has its roots in Southern Indiana.

* * *

It began like any other meeting. In the fall of 1999, the Indiana University Archives and Digital Library Program staffs were collaborating on a project to transfer historical information to an online format. They were designing an electronic history of African Americans at Indiana University when photograph curator Bradley Cook made a comment that would change everything.

"I've been looking through some interesting photo slides this summer. They were shot by a guy named Cushman."

"Wait," said Rich Remsburg, a student working with the Digital Library Program at the time. "Do you mean Charles W. Cushman?"

The two men looked at each other with perplexed surprise, realizing they shared separate pieces of the same historical puzzle. With that discovery, the two departments began the arduous but ultimately gratifying task of digitizing the Cushman's colored slides. Shipped to California to be digitized, the collection returned to Indiana, revealing a lost era.

Charles W. Cushman is an enigma. What we now know of the man and hobbyist is preserved through well-kept but increasingly fragile letters, employment records and, of course, his photographs. We have an intriguing but incomplete image of his life. Many questions remain about Cushman -- questions that may never be answered. What did he consider when framing his subjects? How did he cope with his wife's severe depression? And why did he pick up a camera in the first place?

* * *

The year is 1896. America experiences the benefits and growing pains brought on by the Industrial Revolution. All over the country, technology reshapes the land, but in Poseyville, daily life is not radically different. In this small, agricultural community, Wilbur Davis and Mabel Thomas Cushman welcomed their child, Charles. Named after his mother's grandfather, Charles S. Weever, Cushman would later write he was proud of his pioneering ancestry. In a letter dated April 4, 1966, Cushman describes his namesake. His grandfather was a "distinguished citizen and early physician of Mt. Vernon, Indiana," that "brought his young family west by wagon from Somerset County, Maine."

Little is known of Charles as he grew up in Poseyville, but we know he was an only child who set his sights outside of his hometown. In December of 1913, Cushman sent a telegram to Indiana University requesting a course catalog. The university quickly responded and also informed Cushman there would be roughly 2,500 students enrolled for the 1914 to 1915 academic year -- one-sixteenth of the present-day population.

Cushman immersed himself in school activities, joining the honorary journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi in 1915. His black leather scrapbook features photographs of fraternity brothers and dance invitations as well as a wealth of sports-related newspaper clippings - all carefully pasted to the pages. A lean, young man who observed rather than participated in sporting events, Cushman became "sporting editor" of the Indiana Daily Student. He covered a variety of athletic events and foreshadowing the professional writing he would do 3in the workforce. Cushman primarily studied English and commercial law, graduating from IU in 1917.

* * *

In 1938, Kodachrome film was a luxurious investment. The film cost $3.50 a roll at the time, which is over $50.00 in today's economy. In Cushman's time, amateur photographers generally didn't explore color photography and artists met the medium with snobbish disapproval. Rolls of Kodachrome were mailed to a Kodak laboratory where they were processed and eventually returned in the form of colored slides. Cushman would sometimes show his completed work to select friends after dinner parties. Claude Cookman, a journalism professor at Indiana University with expertise in photography, finds importance in not only what Cushman was shooting with, but also how he documented the world around him. "He spent a sustained time and effort on photography. Most amateurs would go to a place and snap one picture of their family. He explored different visual ideas and wasn't satisfied to stop with a single photo," Cookman says.

The Cushman collection is a hit at the IU Archives. "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't get at least one or two requests about Cushman images for publication," Cook says. People all over the world recognize that the photos are something special. His work shows us an era in color that is usually thought of in grays. His perseverance with the medium allows us to travel through time and see a changing America. The personal effects he left behind enable us to piece together the puzzle that was his life.

* * *

It is May of 1918. Cushman is 21 years old when he enlists in the Navy. He relocates to the Municipal Pier in Chicago, but never sees military action. In a letter, Cushman writes that his time was "about as unpoetic a military career as any..." and that he was "essentially a freshwater sailor, as I never got further east than Buffalo, NY." Meanwhile, his personal life is shaken with the death of his father in June 1918. Shortly after, Cushman's mother moves to Chicago and Cushman is honorably discharged from the Navy in 1921. It is in Chicago that Cushman encountered the influential Hamilton family and met his future wife, Jean.

We don't know the details of the courtship between Charles Cushman and Jean Hamilton, but we do know the two married on June 21, 1934 in Chicago. The Hamilton family was well-rounded and business savvy, which appealed to Cushman. Jean's father, Joe, had a big influence on Cushman and his business affairs. "His colorful life, commercial success, and love of culture and politics were all things that Charles found really attractive," Sandweiss suggests.

While living in Chicago, Cushman worked a number of jobs from South Side Rug Washers to Montgomery Ward & Co. In the business world, Cushman combined his understanding of numbers and language, editing a financial magazine for Standard Statistics Co. called "Your Money." While he was a successful businessman, his medley of jobs may reveal the way Cushman viewed the world. "It probably reflects a restlessness," Sandweiss says. "Anybody that likes to travel that much probably has trouble sitting still." And travel he did.

Cushman and his wife traveled the country extensively from 1937 to 1942, visiting 47 of the 50 states -- skipping only Hawaii, Alaska, and Minnesota. Cushman shot the slums of Chicago, the newly painted Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, Bryce Canyon National Park, sunbathers along Lake Michigan, street vendors in New York City and the agricultural landscapes of his Southern Indiana home. While he never quite reached the level of an artist, Cushman's vision is something to be recognized. "He had good instincts for photographing the streets," Remsburg says. "He saw what a beautiful theatrical production life could be."

* * *

Rich Remsburg was working as the darkroom manager at the Indiana University School of Journalism when he found the additional Cushman slides. While helping a retiring professor clean out his office, Remsburg kept some old, nearly-discarded images he found intriguing. "I've got a real sweet tooth for found photography," explains Remsburg, now a professional photographer. As he threw away papers and photographs, Remsburg found slides belonging to Cushman. At first, he confesses, he had "modest expectations" for them. A few days later, he viewed the slides on a friend's projector and thought differently. "We started going through them and quickly realized this wasn't an ordinary batch of slides," he says.

When Remsburg learned that Bradley Cook also had slides, the two men reunited the collection at the IU Archives. Along with the photos, Cushman left several notebooks to the university. Inside are descriptions of nearly every photograph he took. "He's telling us where he is, sometimes the exact address where he's shooting, what corner he's standing on, the date, and even his camera settings," Cook says.

Eric Sandweiss, associate professor of history at Indiana University, was asked to write an essay to complement the digitized slides. Cushman's story inspired him to write the book "A Day in its Color," released last spring. Sandweiss believes the notebooks reveal something about the man's personality. "He made such a systematic record of his activities, not just with the photographs but also with automobiles. He'll tell you when the oil got changed and what the tire pressure was. I think it's in line with somebody who is good with numbers, who wants to keep track of facts and figures in a way that they can always be found."

* * *

The year is 1938. Cushman returns to Poseyville, finding it similar to the town he left behind. As the shutter of his Contax IIA closes, perhaps he reflects on how much his hometown has remained the same. His images of Southern Indiana capture a way of life that was disappearing throughout much of the country. In an iconic photo, two farmers are facing opposite directions - one on horseback, the other on tractor. It's a brilliant metaphor for two diverging ways of life. Southern Indiana was not only Cushman's home but also represented a simpler way of living he thought was worth preserving through his images. Though the area was familiar to him, Cushman captures the landscape with an outsider's eye, ever the documentarian.

It is March 19, 1943. Joe Hamilton had passed away only a month ago and Jean is suffering from severe depression. Cushman has lost his friend and mentor. In hopes of ending the misery for the both of them, Jean picks up a revolver. Calling Cushman to the top of the stairs, she mutters "something about going away." Confused, Cushman walks back to his desk. She follows. Two shots are fired and both bullets hit him in the head. Jean puts the revolver in her mouth and fires again. Amazingly, both survive the blasts. Cushman manages to alert his next-door neighbor while Jean calls the police. When they arrive, she explains that she was "of an unhappy disposition" and "didn't want to leave without him."

The couple survive the immense physical and emotional strain and remain married another 25 years. Jean recovers and spends time in and out of Rogers Sanitarium in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. What we know about that terrible night is documented in old newspaper clippings, but you can see the impact as well in Cushman's images. In his photos of Jean, whose face was paralyzed after the shooting, her eyes are now distant-looking. Sandweiss also sees a subtle shift in other images after the shootings. "I believe that it shows as a shadow that hangs over the pictures that a viewer could feel or identity even if they didn't know the whole story," Sandweiss says.

Cushman and his wife continued to travel, side-by-side. They ventured overseas to Greece, Germany, Italy and France and, of course, documented these new worlds. In June of 1969, they returned to San Francisco, where Jean passed away. That November, Cushman married a woman named Elizabeth. They were together for two and half years before Charles died and Elizabeth sent his personal effects to the IU Archives as requested by Cushman.

Rich Remsburg had a chance to speak to Elizabeth, who gave him insights into Cushman's past as well as his character. Remsburg says he was "a self confident guy. He was a little snobbish, but still very likeable." After Elizabeth died in 2003, few people remained who knew Cushman well. He was an only child who didn't have any children - a man with a lonely legacy. "That key testimony is still out there somewhere," Sandweiss says. "You wouldn't have to be all that old to remember Charles Cushman. Somebody must have overlapped with his life." Until that voice is brought to light, the story rests heavily on what he left behind.

The Cushman collection is a hit at the IU Archives. "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't get at least one or two requests about Cushman images for publication," Cook says. People all over the world recognize that the photos are something special. His work shows us an era in color that is usually thought of in grays. His perseverance with the medium allows us to travel through time and see a changing America. The personal effects he left behind enable us to piece together the puzzle that was his life.

* * *

Bruce Baumann, a professional photographer and editor of Posey Magazine, can easily relate to the Cushman images because he knows the area so well. There is one image of a silver coupe passing pink budding trees on Grand Chain Road. "When you get to the top of that hill - my driveway is to the right of that," Baumann says. "I'm about a half mile from that road." Baummann, who fell in love with photography in high school, explains the art by saying, "To be able to stop and hold something forever is to me, a wonderful thing."

Time passes, technology advances, and towns adjust. Some places change drastically and others preserve a simpler way of life. In the Cushman collection, one man's version of history comes to light. "I think he was always focused on what remained," Sandweiss says. "Not just in Poseyville, but everywhere. He was always focused on reminding himself that things linger and last -- looking in the continuities. And Southern Indiana is a real good place to do that."

* * *

Where are the images now?

The Cushman collection has garnered international attention and has been used in a number of ways. Here are a few:

1. Books

2. Magazines

4. Calendars

5. Pillows and reproductions through the French company Teo Jasmin.

To view: http://www.teojasmin.com/fr/ (then click on "CUSHMAN" at left)

6. Prints to be used as wall artwork

7. Newspapers

8. Websites

9. Documentaries

10. Exhibits

11. Backdrops for the Broadway, "Baby It's You"

12. Advertisements for selling soul albums

If you would like to view the Cushman collection in its entirety, visit this website: