An obituary appeared in The New York Times this week for Neil Montanus, a former Kodak photographer who died at the age of 92. Montanus had a long, successful career as a commercial photographer but is perhaps best known for his colossal images of idealized American life produced as Colorama photographs. In 1950, Eastman Kodak Company installed the first Colorama in Grand Central Terminal, New York. Billed as the world’s largest photographs, a mile of cold-cathode tubes lit Kodak transparencies creating 16-feet-wide-by-18-feet-tall images of family rituals, exotic travel, sporting events and icons. Montanus photographed 55 of the 565 Coloramas that appeared in Grand Central Station.
The original idea was to inspire Americans to switch from black-and-white to color film, says Steve Kelly, a Kodak photographer since 1974, who once shot Colorama images from Disney characters to the Taj Mahal. It evolved into a “photography class for the masses.”
The photographs helped shape America’s vision of itself, of family outings and aspirations — often with a dog in tow. Today, these images are fading memories of a less complicated, Technicolor world.
The Coloramas were a fixture in Grand Central until the 1990s, when the billboard came down during a restoration of the terminal. More recently, Eastman Kodak Co. donated its archive of 565 Colorama images — about one-tenth of what was actually shot for the display — to the George Eastman House, the former home of Kodak’s founder and now a film and photography museum, in Rochester, N.Y.
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The Coloramas “reflected and reinforced American values and aspirations while encouraging picture-taking as an essential aspect of leisure, travel and family,” says Alison Nordstrom, curator of photographs at the Eastman House, which organized an exhibition featuring three dozen of the megaphotos in 2010. Nordstrom also authored a small, authoritative book (sadly, out-of-print) on the subject which is a pure delight.
The fact that Norman Rockwell art directed a few shots tells you something about the idealized domestic scenes early in the series. Gathered around the hearth, cruising in the convertible, settling into a subdivision at the end of a prairie — many family shots include someone taking a photo (an early Kodak directive) and a dog. How can you have the perfect American family without a pet? The canine models, like many of the human subjects, were rarely pros, but drawn from friends and family in the Rochester area.