The folks at the Southampton Arts Center are offering offering “Colorama,” a traveling exhibit organized by the George Eastman Museum that takes a look back at the quintessential idealism that defined the post World War II years.
In 1950, the Eastman Kodak Company installed the first Colorama inside Grand Central Station in New York City. These oversized advertisements were 18 feet high, 60 feet long and required more than a mile of cold-cathode tubes to light them from behind.
Between 1950 and 1990, 565 Colorama photographs graced the spot and they depicted images of happy families traveling, relaxing and enjoying life while someone in the scene captured the moment with a Kodak camera. The Southampton Arts Center show features 36 of the images, the majority of which were made in the 1960s — arguably Colorama’s heyday and a time of great social change in America.
“Each Colorama in the exhibition so beautifully represents a time of great optimism, purity, and joy,” said Amy Kirwin, the Center’s director of programs. “We can’t think of a better compilation of work to close out 2016 at Southampton Arts Center.”
As a corporate and aesthetic undertaking, the production of Coloramas required the combined efforts of Kodak’s marketing and technical staffs, and many photographers, including such notables as Ansel Adams, Ernst Haas and Eliot Porter.
And at least one of those 565 Coloramas had an East End connection.
In 1957, Eastman Kodak called on Norman Rockwell to photograph a scene representative of the end of summer. Rockwell chose a cottage on Dune Road in Quogue and used a real family — that of Marlboro Man Robert Lynam — to depict a scene of parents closing up the summer house as grandparents, kids and friends bid farewell to their neighbors for the season.
The Colorama project endured until 1990 at Grand Central Station. In the decades from Levittown and the baby boom, to the Watts riots and Woodstock, they offered an unchanging vision of idealized and perfect landscapes, villages and families, American power and patriotism, and the decorative sentimentality of babies, puppies and kittens.
Today, these images are kitschy figures in the landscape of memory. And though we all know there was plenty of inequity, fear and global strife to go around in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the Coloramas remained pure escapism in its ideal American form. They visualized values that, even then, were seen as nostalgic, fading and in jeopardy — salvageable only through the alchemy of cameras and film.
So while Coloramas may not represent reality — then or now — in many ways, they offer exactly what we all need at this moment.
“We feel confident that every visitor will leave with a smile on their face,” added Kirwan.
“Colorama,” organized by the George Eastman Museum, will be on view through December 31, 2016 at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton Village. Visit www.southamptonartscenter.org for details.