The photos shot by Charles and Irene Custer might be the closest many of us will ever get to time travel.
Developed again for the first time in almost 70 years, they capture images of smalltown stores, diners, barbershops and beauty parlors on historic Route 66 and other roads.
It’s an America of honky-tonks and hair pomades, where coffee cost a nickel, a hot dog set you back 15 cents, and the jukebox was ready to play your favorite song.
Their pictures, taken with an Agfa box camera, are panoramic and dioramic, so detailed that even the linoleum floors reveal secrets. You can see dusty bootprints, each discarded straw at the soda fountain, the individual hairs on barbershop floors.
The images use something called one-point perspective: the composition that makes faraway objects appear to recede. It’s like a continuous tracking shot, making viewers feel as if they’re entering the shops and meeting the people looking into the camera.
“It’s as if you opened the door, and they’re right there waiting for you,” said Richard Cahan, a former Chicago Sun-Times picture editor and author of photo books. “They’re just fantastic. What a record, just the drama of every picture, the kind of technical ability. They lit up the entire space. The people. The relationship of the people. They’re perfect. They’re Hollywood stage sets.”
After studying the images, Michael Wallis, author of “The Mother Road: Route 66,” said he and his wife, the writer Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, felt “seduced.”
“It’s just marvelous,” said Wallis, who is based in Tulsa, Oklahoma and likens the Custers’ photos to those of Depression-era greats. “Some of these pictures are evocative to us of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, portraits of the common folk, if you will. They’re a shorthand of notes from the past.”
“This is something I’ve never seen before,” Cahan said. “There’s almost a scientific, ethnographic look at the stores, their relationship with the cameraman. They’re curious about the cameraman. They’re proud about the stores. What stores were like in the 1950s.”
“You immediately feel you know these people,” said Ken Busby, chief executive officer of the Route 66 Alliance in Tulsa.
The Custers’ picture-taking began during their working honeymoon trip in 1950 that took them to Texas. Their road trips lasted a couple of years, until Mrs. Custer became pregnant, according to their son Charley.
While visiting Charley Custer’s home, his friends Oscar Larrauri Elías and Khela de Freslon — who operate OK More Photography in Cozumel, Mexico — spotted a Kodak box of his parents’ negatives. Elías and de Freslon washed, restored and digitally converted them, creating almost 150 images.
De Freslon calls them “amazing images of incredible quality, portraying people in their workplace.”
The quality of the negatives was “so good that we printed one at 16 feet-by-nine feet and wallpapered a wall with it,” de Freslon said. “It was a picture of a barbershop that we chose because it tells a story.
“They all look so much alike that it’s easy to imagine that the barbershop is owned by brothers, and they are cutting the hair of another two brothers and their boys. And once the picture was on the wall, we noticed that on the left side there is a person reflected in the mirror and that it’s the photographer, Charles Sr. Even though we’ve never met him and only saw pictures in his old age, it couldn’t be anyone else because he looks just like our friend Charley, his son. We’re sure he never saw himself in that picture before, and the fact that it’s the one we chose to enlarge feels magical.”
The photographers and the Custer family are hoping someone, somewhere might recognize the landmarks or people in the pictures, helping them unearth new stories about the road trips of Irene and Charles, who were prominent Hyde Parkers with a Bohemian bent. Their home was a rambling 10-bedroom former boarding house at 5210 S. Kenwood Ave., where writer Ben Hecht once lived and where Mrs. Custer continued to host roomers and travelers for many years.
“The dream, since we first saw the negatives, is to trace back their journey through the clues that can be found in the pictures, travel the road they traveled and maybe find those places again — the ones that may be left,” de Freslon said. “Maybe find their families, discover the connection between the places they photographed and today’s world and, through all this, find a way to tell the story they hold.”
Thanks to newspapers, license plates and store signs in the photos, it appears this batch was taken in Oklahoma and New Mexico. But there also are hints of Arizona and Texas. They’re all that is left out of what must have been thousands of negatives, most discarded after prints were made and sold to the subjects of the photos before the Custers moved on to the next town.
Mr. Custer was a resident of the Montgomery Place senior living community in Hyde Park when he died in January at 91.
A native of WaKeeney, Kansas, he landed a summer job during high school as a candid street photographer in Topeka, Kansas.
While studying at the University of Chicago, he met his future wife, Hyde Parker Irene Macarow Custer. He cofounded a TV sales and repair business and worked as an attorney with the law firm now known as Vedder Price. Mrs. Custer, who died in 2011, cofounded and ran the Harper art gallery in Harper Court.
When they fell in love, Mr. Custer planned to save money for their future by working as a roving photographer.
“I’ll go with you,” Mrs. Custer said.
So they married, and together they set off.
When the Custers came to a town, they’d make sure there were no anti-peddling signs, then walk down Main Street, USA, striking up conversations and dropping unannounced into businesses to take pictures with a disarming greeting of “Hollywood’s calling!”
They were an attractive couple — and good salespeople. Mr. Custer was the photographer. Mrs. Custer helped people pose and put them at ease.
They developed the prints in their motel-room sinks, blocking out light by pinning blankets over windows, Charley Custer said.
The surviving pictures — all appear to be from the Southwest — portray a bygone America, capturing a time when women lipsticked and dressed up to go to town, and men wore hats and suspenders.
They show careworn adults and carefree children in pegged jeans who might have just jumped off their bikes to grab a Coca-Cola. And town beauties — and a kid caught in what could be mid-ogle. And grease monkeys as dashing as movie stars. There’s a cobbler who could fix your soles and saddle and sell you a concho belt.
There are hints of postwar upward mobility in displays of luggage, jewelry and bikes. Appliance showrooms show off gleaming gas ranges and Maytag washers and an item then commonly referred to as an icebox.
The men appear to be in the executive offices. The women are at the typewriters. In an era when African American freedom of movement was mercilessly circumscribed by rules both implicit and explicit, there are only a few black subjects. One appears to be a “shoeshine man” at a barbershop. Others include mechanics.
Busby says he’s “never” seen this level of detail in images of shops of the era.
Wallis likens them to “commercial archeology.” The stores are stocked with some brands still sold today, including Butterfinger, Budweiser, Camel cigarettes, Cheetos, Fritos, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Quaker Oats.
Other consumer goods are more like tumbleweeds of Americana, like S&H Green Stamps, to be redeemed for appliances and other goods, and Wildroot Cream-Oil for greasing men’s hair. There are quaint signs for Velvet ice cream — “for vital energy.”
“It’s life, frozen in that moment,” Charley Custer said of the images his father captured.
Wallis — whose Route 66 expertise was tapped for the making of the “Cars” movies and who ended up voicing the franchise’s Sheriff of Radiator Springs — said the Custer photos show what’s most special about one of the world’s most famous highways.
“The best thing about the road,” Wallis said, “are the people — the people of the road who managed to eke out a living on the shoulders of the way.”
Mr. Custer is also survived by his daughters Shannon Nelson and Kelly Custer, sisters Jeanne Conner, Kathleen Bankston and Sara Overton, four grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a celebration of his life has been indefinitely postponed.
“Today with this pandemic, we’re missing this sense of connectedness,” Busby said. “This is what it means to be part of a community, part of a family.”