The year is 1938

… when an amateur photographer named Charles W. Cushman starts experimenting with a new technology: Color film. Few would follow suit in those early days. But for decades, Cushman remained obsessed.

Not long ago, photo researcher Rich Remsberg rescued a bunch of Cushman's photos that were headed for the trash. The rest had already been saved by Indiana University. Together, they amount to some 14,500 images.

Within that archive lies an incredible story of road trips, attempted murder and, above all, one man's lifelong search for depth of field.

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The Discovery

The Discoverer

Credit: Robb Hill

Boxes and boxes


Mammoth, Ariz., May 1940

Charles W. Cushman

A witness to his time


Barn in Posey County, Ind., April 1941 and Cushman at age 2 (Indiana University Archives)

The hobbyist and the obsessive

golden gate bridge 1953

Golden Gate Bridge, February 1953

golden gate bridge 1962

Golden Gate Bridge, October 1962


Jean, February 1955


Fireworks, San Francisco, September 1960


Fireworks, San Francisco, September 1960


Owens Valley, Calif., September 1955


Sunset, San Francisco, October 1961


Sunbather in Chicago, Summer 1941


Annapolis, Md., September 1940


Tucson, Ariz., February 1940


Jean Cushman, May 1958

Depth of field

chicago kids

Chicago children, March 1949

red tree

Posey County, Ind., November 1938


Albion, Ill., April 1941


End of roll, Undated

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"Photography is not a contest… It's about being a witness to your times."

—Rich Remsberg

"He was a hobbyist… but he was also an obsessive. You put those two things together and you've got a certain kind of picture-taker."

—Eric Sandweiss

Learn More ↓


a little bit more

There's so much more to learn from the The Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection, housed at Indiana University. Archival image researcher Rich Remsberg, whose voice you heard above, has an introductory essay. And historian Eric Sandweiss brings it to life in his book, The Day In Its Color, (Oxford University Press, 2012).

But the most helpful guide to these photos was left by Cushman himself. He took meticulous notes about each and every photograph, filling dozens of notebooks with details about where he was and when. So, for example, we know that the Golden Gate Bridge photo was taken on a cloudless day in September, 1938… and 1953 and 1954… and 1968. You get the point.

Although the bridge, as a recurring image, stays consistent over three decades, the things surrounding it don't. Cushman's cars change. So do his clothes. America evolves before our very eyes — if we're patient enough to wade through hundreds of images in chronological order. New railroads influence commerce, highways connect people and machines replace horses. Cushman saw it happening and, for whatever reason, felt compelled to document history as it unfolded. That's what separates him from the vacation photographer: Why else would someone photograph a smokestack outside of Chicago?

There's a tidy organization to Cushman's photos, but there's also a serendipity. Dig around the archives and you'll unearth lush landscapes, impressionistic florals and self-portraits that, with hindsight, we can describe as brooding.

As Sandweiss explains, Cushman's photographs were mediated by his tumultuous marriage with Jean. He was born in the very small town of Poseyville, Indiana, but married into an established Chicago family. Jean was cousins with John Steinbeck, incidentally; and she came undone after her father's death. From then on, it seems, Cushman's photographs gave him a kind of therapy.

We do the same thing today. We put frames around moments to make sense of them — to make them last. Although these days, it's easy to create 14,500 images in an aggressive week of digital shooting. We capture everything — from birthdays to sunsets to what's for lunch. But Cushman provokes a question: Are we just making noise, or are we really processing the passage of time?

"He's a great reminder…" Remsberg says, "that photography is not a contest. … It's about being a witness to your times."

So: Are you a witness?

We would love to have your thoughts about these photos, about this presentation, and about your relationship to photography and your time. Please visit The Picture Show blog to leave your comments.

You can explore all of Cushman's photos at your own pace on the Indiana University website.

About the project

"Lost and Found" was published on NPR's Picture Show on Sept. 14, 2012. It was produced and reported by Claire O'Neill and designed and developed by Wesley Lindamood.

Photographs by Charles W. Cushman, courtesy of The Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection/Indiana University and Eric Sandweiss, author of The Day In Its Color (Oxford University Press, 2012). Portrait of Rich Remsberg by Robb Hill. Music: "The Mountain," "Chimera" and "Vibe Drive" by Chad Crouch (Podington Bear), Animated car background gif adapted from moving image collection of Thanks for visiting!