1940s Celebrities In Full Color

Mar 15, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 8:57 am

These are the kinds of black-and-white images we usually associate with past celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Orson Welles and Lucille Ball.

But seeing this collection is like arriving in Oz. A new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., shows 24 typically monochrome faces from the 1930s, '40s and '50s in full color. The New York Times has more details, but in short: Pioneering photographer Harry Warnecke and his colleagues created these portraits for the New York Daily News Sunday magazine.

Of note: A baby-faced Orson Welles and the backdrop that frames Gene Autry.

Because it was such a complicated process, color photography was relatively rare in the 1930s. But Warnecke designed his own camera, using "the technically demanding, tri-color carbro process," the exhibit language explains. Each of these images is a combination of three different negatives.

Beautiful traces of that process show in the perimeter of blue, magenta and yellow around each portrait. Typically, those borders would be cropped away, but today, they suggest a demanding processes of yore used to capture America's celebrities of yore.

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