What I'm Reading: The Coloramas

For those unfamiliar with the term, Coloramas were a large photographic displays located on the east balcony inside New York City's Grand Central Terminal from 1950 to 1990. Over these 40 years, over 500 were produced. While the intent of the Coloramas was advertising for Eastman Kodak, they were undeniably complex and beautiful.

The photographs were converted to massive transparencies 18 feet tall and 60 feet wide. Rumor has it the tube lights used to backlight the images would have totaled over one mile long if placed end to end.

Images were typically taken on a 8×20-inch large format camera with ISO 10 film using a very stable tripod and subjects that could literally freeze themselves for seconds at a time.

It's hard not to notice there is a similarity---continuity between the images. When Alison Nordstrom (Curator of Photographs, George Eastman House) was asked to describe who was depicted in the pictures, she described the amateur photographers in the images as follows:

The people with cameras who populated Coloramas were invariably happy amateurs taking pictures as a regular and enjoyable part of their leisure activities. They were often shown with their families who provided either subject or audience. For decades, families and couples happily golfed, fished, picnicked and danced before a loving lens. Often the family’s activities were simply to pose — wading in a brook strolling through a garden or sitting in a picturesque arrangement on a stone wall, while one of them photographs the rest.

While photographers varied over the Colorama era, there was one man who stood out as the "King of Colorama." This man is none other than Neil Montanus who produced 55 of the Coloramas that hung in Grand Central Station over the course of his career. All of his images were spectacular, however, one image stands out as legendary. This image was the first ever underwater Colorama which was taken in US Virgin Islands and displayed in Grand Central Station October of 1977.

To create this image, Neil used a water-tight, plexiglass housing with a wire finder that was built for a 9 inch wide x 100 foot long roll film K-19 aerial camera. To create stability underwater, the camera was attached to a tripod with lead weights. Four 650-watt underwater movie lights were used to significantly increase illumination and reduce the excessive blue tinge of the sea water.

One thing I couldn't help but notice is the subjects' death grip on the orange Elkhorn coral. Unless the fish were photoshopped in, I can't help but think this invasive touching was unnecessary, given the frozen fish and air bubbles indicate a relatively quick shutter speed. I'll pretend I didn't see it.

If my musings thoroughly whet your appetite, check out the following links for more Colorama magic:

Neil Montanus Portfolio - Coloramas

Kodak’s Idealized Colorama Returns

Colorama! 'The World's Largest Photographs' Are Back

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