The Kodak Colorama

When New York City's Grand Central Terminal underwent renovations in the 1990s, it was decided that, as a historic landmark, the building should be restored to its original 1913 state. This meant that the giant Kodak "Coloramas," after a 40-year run and 565 images, would lose their place above the terminal's east balcony. Kodak wasn't about to let their memory die however, and now a selection of those Brobdingnagian images can be viewed online at The Kodak Colorama.

The Flash 4 presentation opens with an illustration of the scale of "The World's Largest Photograph," and of its location within the Terminal (which also reveals why those dedicated to the original Grand Central objected to the Coloramas obscuring the east end of the main concourse).

Rather than moving from page to page, the main page of the exhibit frames the rest of the site's changing content, as navigation tools to the top and lower right of the browser window dictate the elements in "active" areas. Naturally, the center of the window is occupied by examples of 136 Coloramas, somewhat reduced from their original 18-foot by 60-foot size. Each image is labeled with a title, the photographer's name, and the photograph's "appearance dates" within the Terminal.

Along the top of the window, Kodak offers a Capsule History of the Colorama. (There is also an Intro link, but that simply replays the site's opening animation.) The exhibit recounts the birth of the Colorama concept, the commercial aspects of the display, and its success as an element of New York history and culture.

Technical Highlights is next, as it looks at the mechanics of the enterprise – from the 8-inch by 20-inch film that was necessary for early production to the eventual creation of a Colorama from a standard 35mm slide in 1977 and from a "point and shoot" camera in 1986. Making a Colorama recounts the printing and installation of the giant transparencies and About the Photographers includes short clips interviews with the people who created the images.

Finally, the Gallery allows direct access to the Coloramas, which are arranged by date, subject matter, and photographer. You'll probably know at least a few of the names here, such as Ansel Adams (and you thought he only shot black and white), Ernst Haas, and somebody called NASA. Each image in the gallery also offers a paragraph or two of specific additional information via a text box that scrolls into view when requested.

Download times

It won't come as a surprise that a web exhibit dedicated to photographs is going to be a bit of a bandwidth hog. While there is no low-bandwidth version of the site, dial-up users will encounter fair warning of possible delays while viewing the site, followed by the options of loading the introductory animation or proceeding straight into the site. (While the latter option only succeeded in reloading the existing page during my attempts, it was easy enough to ask for the animation, then immediately choose the "Skip Intro" option.)

As always with Flash-based sites, download may take a while, but once loaded, access to the contents of each segment proceed without delay, and fortunately, the substantial content of this site is broken down into fairly manageable chunks. (Sizes seem to top out at about 350Kb, which took a little over a minute when I downloaded over a 56k modem.)

While I wouldn't want every site to use Colorama's navigation system, I do wish that every site had a navigation system this well-suited to its purpose. With drop-down menus allowing visitors to move to exhibits within each category, then indexes to the lower right of the window permitting navigation within the exhibit, this simple structure allows surfers to move almost instantly – not including download time – from anywhere to anywhere.

Viewing the Coloramas is much like flipping though an old edition of National Geographic – but concentrating on the ads rather than the articles. The overly warm tones of earlier shots have been as well preserved as the overly posed appearance of their subjects. As one of the interview clips states, the Coloramas were reflections of the culture of the time – not just in terms of the subject matter, but even in the way the photographs were taken. And from as far as 50 years away, those reflections can be as interesting as the pictures themselves.

The Kodak Colorama can be found at http://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/features/coloramas/.

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