Celebrities of the Past, Now in “Vibrant Color” at the Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery showcases Harry Warnecke’s early color photographs of famous faces from the 1930s and ‘40s

Louis Armstrong
Harry Warnecke shot rare color photographs of many cultural icons, including Louis Armstrong. © 2012 Daily News, LP

Fresh off Sunday’s nostalgia-heavy Oscars night, Ann Shumard, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, “In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio,” recalls a video of Grace Kelly winning the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress. “She’s wearing this beautiful gown. It looks white, but it was actually this fabulous aquamarine,” Shumard says. “It just totally changes your perception when you see it in color.”

Today, we’re used to color—it would be so much less fun to judge the best and worst Oscars fashions in black-and-white—but in the mid-1930s, most people had never encountered a color photograph, much less a color film. Harry Warnecke changed that with his revolutionary photographs for The New York Daily News, New York’s first tabloid. The Sunday paper featured Warnecke’s brilliantly colored prints of beloved celebrities as they had never been seen before. Now, 24 of these photographs from the 1930s and ’40s line the corridor of the Portrait Gallery. Lucille Ball’s fiery red coiff pops in contrast to the demure gray backdrop. A post-World War II photograph of a grinning, soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower is so vivid that it looks like it was shot just a few days ago.

Because the development process was so labor-intensive, Warnecke was one of the only photographers of his time to experiment with color. The tricolor carbro process required the simultaneous exposure of three negatives through different color filters. Warnecke designed and built his own one-shot camera to separate each pigment. Since the color carbro process used pigment instead of dye, the rich colors never faded even after all these years. Shumard explains, “If you’ve ever gone through old family photographs from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s or even the ’80s, you notice that the color often shifts and it’s not true to the original, because the dyes have shifted. But what’s so great about these is that the color is still so true.”

The first Warnecke portrait, of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy alter-egos, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, was purchased at an auction in 1992. According to Shumard, the curator of photographs at the time was inspired by this image to find out whatever she could about the photographer. Her search led her to Warnecke’s widow, Elsie, who was so thrilled someone was interested in her husband’s work that she gifted many more prints to the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Over time, many of the photographs have been displayed individually, but, as Shumard says, “There’s kind of a momentum that builds when you have them all together.”

Warnecke’s tabloid photos are of an entirely different breed from the paparazzi snapshots of today. He and his associates “were certainly not practicing ‘gotcha’ photography,” Shumard says. “This is celebratory, it’s fun. Everyone comes off looking good.” The dramatic color pairings and contrasts make for “very upbeat and positive images.” The excitement about this new technology practically emanates from each portrait.

The euphoric use of color in each photograph also underscores how far we’ve come since Grace Kelly’s black-and-white Academy Awards acceptance speech. “It was fun to have this show opening right at the time of the Oscars, because everyone’s thinking about celebrity and how we view it today,” Shumard says. “With The Artist winning as best film, now black and white is the novelty. We’re all just inundated with color.”

“In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio” opened early on Friday and runs through September 9, 2012.

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