We moved to the suburbs in 1984. It was my wife's idea. After only four years in Manhattan, I was resistant to the idea of retreating to a place like the subdivision I had grown up in, so I insisted to Dorothy that we move to Westchester County. There were two reasons. First, I had the idea, based mostly on my obsessive reading of John Cheever, that Westchester possessed some kind of literary superiority to, say, New Jersey or Long Island. Second, I wanted desperately to commute every day through Grand Central Terminal.
The main concourse of Grand Central is New York's great indoor room. When it opened in 1913, architects Warren & Wetmore's building was hailed as an engineering marvel and a "temple to transportation." But by 1984 it was dark, dirty, and marred with advertising. Sticky trash was stuck in every corner. Homeless people slept in its subterranean passages. And looming above it all, blocking the main hall's east windows, presiding over its tumult no less than West Egg's Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, was the Colorama, the massive backlit billboard that its creator, Eastman Kodak, trumpeted as the World's Largest Color Photograph.
The first Colorama was installed in 1950. It was eighteen feet high and sixty feet wide. According to Colorama, a new book from Aperture, the backlit transparencies required over a mile of cold-cathode tubes to illuminate. The image changed every month; eventually there would be a total of 565 Coloramas deployed in Grand Central. The president was Harry Truman when the first went up, and it would be George H. Bush when the last one came down. The images, however, did not directly reflect a changing America, but rather gently refracted it through a hazy lens of unironic, idealized nostalgia that today seems absolutely eerie.
The subject, again and again, is the American family at leisure, picnicking, playing, sightseeing. The images are clearly advertisements: for years, in fact, they were inevitably pictures of people taking pictures of other people, at golf outings, fishing trips, teen parties, weddings. The Coloramas today remind me of a lot of things: the vast flattened panoramas of Andreas Gursky, the alienated subjects of Tina Barney, the creepy psychodramas of Gregory Crewdson. But at the time, these pictures must have seemed like an epic attempt to merge two great American traditions: the impossibly vast landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, and the homey tableaus of Norman Rockwell. (Although no Hudson River School painter was on hand to help with 1959's "Camping at Lake Placid," Rockwell himself is credited as art director for 1954's "Closing on a Summer Cottage.")
For the six years I commuted past the Colorama in the eighties, the pictures were more generic, not quite as obviously stilted. Only one of them is pictured in the Aperture collection. This was, after all, the decade of David Lynch and "Twin Peaks:" we knew about irony, okay? The forced smiles of happy families frozen in contrived poses would have conjured up questions of what these repressive characters could possibly be concealing. It was not unlike the way my hero John Cheever, writing of a bucolic commuter town pretty much identical to my own, could hint at the undercurrents of adultery, alchoholism and ennui that festered behind the pretty suburban facades.
"The Colorama format," writes Alison Nordstrom in the book's opening essay, "exaggerated the epic presentation of things in rows: midshipmen, choirboys, babies, fighter jets, gondolas, iceboats, koalas, kittens and tulips were all graphically displayed in rhythmic and gargantuan display." Indeed, the most memorable Colorama from my early commuting days was a portrait of a dozen babies, lined up like so many top heavy dolls, snapped at a moment when -- impossibly -- each had decided to look his or her absolute cutest for the camera. This ridiculously corny but endlessly enthralling image was so popular that it was reprised a few years later. The adorable dozen, now toddlers, were lined up for a reshoot.
In the nineties, Grand Central recieved a masterful renovation at the hands of architects Beyer Blinder Belle. The Colorama, once a welcome diversion, seemed by then vulgar and obtrusive. It had to go, and it did. Grand Central is sparkling and splendid now, and I doubt few people long for a corny, sixty foot long color picture to block the morning sunlight streaming through the concourse's east windows. I do, however, wonder whatever happened to those babies.
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