Luminaries, in a New Light

‘In Vibrant Color’ reveals ’30s and ’40s icons in uncommonly rich hues

May 10, 2012
Harry Warnecke and Gus Schoenbaechler photographed trumpeter Louis Armstrong in 1947 for the New York Daily News.

In the 1930s and ’40s, photographer Harry Warnecke was a sort of emissary from the full-color future. His work revealed to ordinary people what their black-and-white heroes really looked like. “In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits From the Harry Warnecke Studio,” on display at the National Portrait Gallery, is an assortment of his work, showing entertainers, athletes and other luminaries as they were then rarely seen.

“Our collective memory of so many people in the show is formed by old-time media,” says Ann Shumard, the museum’s curator of photographs. “To see someone like Orson Welles in color, or especially Laurel and Hardy, brings another dimension to the subject that we have missed by simply seeing them in black and white.”

Using the rare three-color carbro process (see box at right), Warnecke and his associates produced a cover photo every Sunday for the New York Daily News color supplement. This show includes 24 of the portraits, from a total of 36 owned by the NPG. The celebs include comedians Lucille Ball and W.C. Fields, baseball players Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams, and several World War II generals, including future president Dwight Eisenhower.

The photos seen here were made between 1938 and 1949, at a time when Hollywood was experimenting with color, but newspapers and magazines lagged behind. “No other newspaper was doing anything like that,” says Shumard of the studio’s work. “Life magazine was founded in 1936, and it was years before there was color on the cover.”

A few of the later photos were made outdoors, but the bulkiness of the camera led Warnecke to work mostly in his studio, using simple backdrops. He did make a trip to Hollywood, which is where he photographed Laurel and Hardy.

“This was not a handheld camera,” as Shumard says, and Warnecke and his associates were not paparazzi. Their work is “friendly in nature. It’s very much a collaboration between the photographer and the subject.”

The celebrities and their portraitist are gone now, yet the carbro photos show no sign of fading. “The color,” says Shumard, “is still as rich and saturated and bright as the day the prints were made.”

Creative Process

The Warnecke studio used a one-shot camera that could simultaneously expose three separate black-and-white negatives, each through a different color filter. The technique — the carbro process, originally named for the carbon black pigment used before the tri-color version was invented — was “laborious,” says NPG curator Ann Shumard. Yet, Warnecke continued to use it into the early 1960s, long after simpler alternatives were available. “He obviously loved the results he got,” Shumard says.

National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW; free, through Sept. 9, 202-633-8300. (Gallery Place)
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Rudi Greenberg · May 10, 2012