“Vibrant Color”: Harry Warnecke’s celebrity photos at the Portrait Gallery
By Katherine Boyle,
Lucille Ball’s auburn hair is almost as red as her lips. Irene Dunne dons a canary yellow blazer and somehow makes it look wearable. The whites and blues of Gen. Patton’s eyes blend well with the rainbow palette of ribbons on his chest.
The public of yesteryear loved celebrity — their generals, athletes and film stars — but until New York Daily News photographer Harry Warnecke put them on the Sunday Magazine, most people only knew shapes and shadows of famous faces awash in smudged newsprint.
Dwight Eisenhower and Roy Rogers came to life in bright tricolor carbro prints, a process so rare and complicated few photographers used it. That’s one of the reasons why the National Portrait Gallery is exhibiting “In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits From the Harry Warnecke Studio,” which opens Friday.
The 24 Warnecke portraits in the permanent collection, works mostly donated by Warnecke’s late widow, Elsie, are also a charming showcase of American sentiments and heroes, the people the public wanted to see.
Beginning in the 1930s, Warnecke led the Daily News color photography studio, quietly and methodically producing portraits of famous faces for Sunday readers to absorb in color. For more than 30 years, he produced celebrity portraits for an archive that was never kept, many of the prints collecting dust in his home. A true newsman, who credited his assistants on all of his works, he convinced the Daily News to invest in expensive technology that introduced color photography to a broad audience. At the time, the tricolor carbro processwas so rare that Warnecke built his own “one-shot” camera, which used filters to separate images into red, blue, and green pigments, creating bold, enduring color.
Somehow, after his death in 1984, many of his portraits were forgotten.
“He sort of fell off the radar,” says Ann Shumard, curator of photographs for the National Portrait Gallery. “It’s the difference between a fine art photographer and the photographers who worked for major newspapers. The photographers at Life and Look certainly were more well known, because they had national circulation.”
But his mastery of the process left lasting photographs, and glimpses into popular culture of the 1930s and ’40s. His methods and portraits were grounded in simplicity and realism, unlike the celebrity portraits of today. Because color took priority over dramatic shadows, he produced the sorts of jovial, kitschy images that have become the hallmark of American nostalgia.
“You can tell he was never intimidated by his subjects,” says Shumard. “He had fun doing these pictures. They really are visual documents from a time gone by, to move us and intrigue us. They’re just . . . delightful.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Harry Warnecke and Robert F. Cranston, 1945
Photographed just after the end of World War II in 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower flashes a victorious smile in front of an American flag backdrop. “There’s nothing cheap or pandering,” says Shumard. “It’s really kind of kitschy, but it’s a picture in 1945, after victory.” Warnecke’s photos always captured the spirit of the time, and the high circulation of the Daily News attracted many famous figures outside the entertainment world.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias: Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston and Gus Schoenbaechler, 1947
While many of his portraits were shot in studio, Warnecke also shot on-location, taking his one-shot camera with him. He shot many athletes, including all-around star Olympian Babe Didrikson, who solidified her place as one of the most memorable female athletes of the early 20th century with her golfing prowess.
Dale Evans: Harry Warnecke, 1947
A radio singer and film star, Dave Evans became known for her films with singing cowboy Roy Rogers. Between 1944 and 1951, the duo, who later married, made over 25 films together. “This Dale Evans picture is a lot of fun, it didn’t run in the magazine,” says Shumard. “It was taken in 1947, the year she married Roy Rogers and not long before their engagement announcement. They later ran an image of two of them together instead.”
Irene Dunne: Harry Warnecke and Robert F. Cranston, 1944
Warnecke was not a fashion photographer, but he still dabbled in the medium, photographing Oscar-nominated actress Irene Dunne in this bold monogrammed jacket in 1944.“We don’t see the glamour we associate with the 1930s and 1940s here,” says Shumard. “He didn’t employ the dramatic lighting used in black-and-white photographs. His pictures were less obviously dramatic, focusing on color rather than strong light and dramatic shadows.”
Orson Welles: Harry Warnecke and Lee Elkins, 1939
In 1939, Warnecke shot a young Orson Welles, reenacting the most famous radio broadcast in history, “War of the Worlds.” “This photo was published in January, only months after the famous broadcast that sent so many listeners into panic, thinking aliens were invading New Jersey,” Shumard says.
Louis Armstrong: Harry Warnecke and Gus Schoenbaechler, 1947
In 1947, Warnecke shot trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who at the time was already a household name. From athletes to musicians, Warnecke shot cultural icons whose legacies have endured. “A variety of subjects were of interest to readers,” Shumard says. “It wasn’t just film or stage stars, people were just as eager to see people that were newsworthy.”
“In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio,”
at the National Portrait Gallery from Friday- Sept. 3. Free. 800 F St. NW; 202-633-8300. www.npg.si.edu.