We are now so accustomed to seeing color photographs in newspapers and magazines, that it’s hard to remember a time when black and white images were the norm. There was one newspaper where color photographs showed up with some frequency, and not just any images, but ones of celebrities, an early version of People.
In the 1930s, Harry Warnecke and his associates at the New York Daily News’ Color Studio turned out beautiful, brilliant portraits of movie stars, sports heroes, military leaders, and government officials for the newspaper’s Sunday News magazine. In Vibrant Color now at the National Portrait Gallery brings together 24 of these images that are not only an example of early photographic technique but also a walk down celebrity memory lane.
The Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, curated by Ann Shumard, curator of photographs, draws from the museum’s collection. Warnecke used a one-shot camera that he designed himself employing an early form of color photography—tri-color carbro process—-that was technically demanding. The result was worth the time and effort, producing rich, detailed photos that managed to convey each subject’s personality and occupation.
There are no photos of Angelina and Brad, Kobe, or the Clintons. The photos celebrate celebrities of a different era and younger viewers will need to be reminded by mom and dad (or perhaps by grandma and grandpa) who some of these people are and why they were famous. Even Lucille Ball, immortal because of her TV fame, conveys an unfamiliar persona, posing in a striped outfit, whimsical hat, and enigmatic smile. Hardly the zany comic known for her shenanigans as Lucy Ricardo.
Cowboys are now missing from the TV landscape which makes the photos of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Gene Autry all the more appealing. Today, Roy Rogers is more closely associated with a fast food chain, not for the TV cowboy who sang “Happy Trails.” And Autry, for baseball fans, is remembered as a businessman who once owned the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
There are no Yankees, but there is a Red Sox, Ted Williams pictured actually wearing red socks. The true game changer, Jackie Robinson assumes a batting stance looking intense, contemplating the next pitch or his place in history.
Ventriloquists were once a stable on variety shows and possibly the best was Edgar Bergen, pictured with his two wooden puppets, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. (True fans can visit Charlie McCarthy at the Smithsonian.) Bergen’s daughter, the actress Candice Bergen, in her 1984 book Knock Wood, confessed her irritation at being referred to as Charlie’s younger sister. Warnecke’s photo conveys the father-son like relationship that existed between Bergen and his two dummies.
Orson Welles, very young and very thin, stands behind a large CBS microphone, a look of pure terror on his face. Perhaps in the middle of his War of the Worlds broadcast? For young people who have never heard about Welles’ radio prank that frightened a nation, that tale is best left for a dark and stormy night.
Irene Dunne’s photograph (at top) serves as the poster for the exhibit. She is perhaps best remembered for her role as Martha “Mama” Hanson in 1948’s I Remember Mama. Watch for it on Turner Classic Movies. Although Dunn is not as well known as many others in the exhibit, her photo was the perfect choice to spotlight Warnecke’s work. She epitomizes the Hollywood glamour of the period—the curled, auburn hair, the fitted, bright yellow jacket, the black hat with veil. Like Warnecke’s photos, her appeal is timeless.
In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits From the Harry Warnecke Studio
National Portrait Gallery
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