Daily Picture Show

1940s Celebrities In Full Color

These are the kinds of black-and-white images we usually associate with past celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Orson Welles and Lucille Ball.

Louis Armstrong, 1946 (William P. Gottlieb) and Orson Welles, 1937 (Carl Van Vechten)

Louis Armstrong, 1946 (William P. Gottlieb) and Orson Welles, 1937 (Carl Van Vechten) Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

But seeing this collection is like arriving in Oz. A new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., shows 24 typically monochrome faces from the 1930s, '40s and '50s in full color. The New York Times has more details, but in short: Pioneering photographer Harry Warnecke and his colleagues created these portraits for the New York Daily News Sunday magazine.

Of note: A baby-faced Orson Welles and the backdrop that frames Gene Autry.

  • Louis Armstrong, 1947
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    Louis Armstrong, 1947
    Harry Warnecke, Gus Schoenbaechler/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1947 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1945
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    Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1945
    Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1945 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Lucille Ball, 1944
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    Lucille Ball, 1944
    Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1944 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Orson Welles, 1939
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    Orson Welles, 1939
    Harry Warnecke, Lee Elkins/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1939 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Dale Evans, 1947
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    Dale Evans, 1947
    Harry Warnecke/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1947 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Edgar Bergen, 1948
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    Edgar Bergen, 1948
    Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston, Gus Schoenbaechler/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1948 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Gene Autry, 1942
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    Gene Autry, 1942
    Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1942 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Irene Dunne, 1944
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    Irene Dunne, 1944
    Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1944 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • W. C. Fields, 1938
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    W. C. Fields, 1938
    Harry Warnecke, Lee Elkins/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1938 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Ted Williams, 1940
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    Ted Williams, 1940
    Harry Warnecke/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1940 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • "Babe" Didrikson, 1947
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    "Babe" Didrikson, 1947
    Harry Warnecke, Robert F. Cranston, Gus Schoenbaechler/Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1947 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution
  • Jackie Robinson, 1949
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    Jackie Robinson, 1949
    Robert F. Cranston, Frank Livia, Bill Klein, Harry Warnecke//Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery/1949 Daily News, LP/Smithsonian Institution

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Because it was such a complicated process, color photography was relatively rare in the 1930s. But Warnecke designed his own camera, using "the technically demanding, tri-color carbro process," the exhibit language explains. Each of these images is a combination of three different negatives.

Beautiful traces of that process show in the perimeter of blue, magenta and yellow around each portrait. Typically, those borders would be cropped away, but today, they suggest a demanding processes of yore used to capture America's celebrities of yore.

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