Color My World – Art in America (May 2010)

Color My World by Marvin Heiferman

Art in America, May 2010

Color’s belated infiltration of art photography in the ’70s is the subject of an enlightening survey at the Cincinnati Museum.

THESE DAYS, BLACK-AND-WHITE images are becoming rare. They’re encountered mostly in newspapers and books, where they’re used to cut costs or as special effects, with color stripped out through software applications like Photoshop. If most of us assume that a colorful world is best represented in equally colorful pictures, that wasn’t always the case, as we are reminded in “Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980.” Organized at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) by guest curator Kevin Moore, the exhibition features work by 18 photographers. While the show might suggest to some that color photography suddenly exploded into popular consciousness during the ‘70s, that shift had already taken place in visual culture at large. By the 1960s, color photographs routinely jazzed up the pages of national magazines and the packaging of consumer goods. By the 1970s, feature films had long been routinely shot in color, and color television broadcasting had become the norm. For amateurs who carried tiny Instamatics in their pockets or dropped color slides into the slots of carousel projector trays, Paul Simon’s 1973 hit song “Kodachrome” summed up mass culture’s photo esthetic of the time: “Everything looks worse in black and white.”

What “Starburst” zooms in to focus on is more rarefied: color’s belated but meteoric impact on the then-small art photography community struggling to gain traction and respectability during the ‘70s. Commercial galleries have mounted shows with similar themes—“When Color Was New,” for example, at Julie Saul Gallery in 2008, and “Seventies Color Photography” at Kennedy Boesky Photographs in 2004 (both in New York). But if the broad plotlines of this story have been sketched out before, this time around the narrative benefits greatly from getting museum treatment. An exhibition of approximately 200 prints, and an accompanying catalogue that includes essays by Moore, photography/writer Leo Rubinfien and James Crump, CAM’s curator of photography, offer a broad survey and some much-needed research, helping to make sense of a medium and a decade that are notoriously difficult to pin down.

As conventional accounts tell it, “serious” color photography began when New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition of William Eggleston’s color photographs in May 1976, and all hell broke loose. “Starburst” takes a scholarly step back to fashion a more comprehensive representation and chronology of the spread of contemporary color work in the art world. In fact, exhibitions had been mounted elsewhere and with frequency from the early ‘70s on. So what was it about that exhibition of Eggleston’s prints, which John Szarkowski, who then directed MoMA’s photography department, called “perfect,” that stirred up controversy? What caused Hilton Kramer, art critic at the New York Times, to quip, “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly,” before he went on to chastise the work for seesawing between being “obviously pretty” and “austere,” and exploiting color that was either “postcard bright” or “points ponderously atmospheric”?

Perhaps it was Eggleston’s Southern Gothic, seemingly offhand subject matter, or the woozy vantage points he favored, which annoyed or startled some viewers. Whatever the reason, his unusually saturated dye-transfer prints, notoriously expensive to produce, did their share to fuel the hype surrounding the work, and spurred questions regarding the museum’s star-making power. For those unaware of color photography’s long gestation and history—dating back to the first hand-colored daguerreotypes, made just after photography was introduced in the mid-19th century—or even of MoMA’s intermittent interest in and history of exhibiting color photography, the show looked bratty and brash. What made “art photography” art for many of its practitioners and appreciators was a shared belief that black-and-white images were subtler, more high-minded and, therefore, of better quality than the raucous color images that had so successfully infiltrated and come to shape the visual culture of daily life. As late as 1969, color was still transgressive for his minimal and elegant black-and-white work of the 1930s, who had four words to say about the subject: “Color photography is vulgar.” And yet by the mid-‘70s he, too, would be shooting color, with an SX-70 camera and cases of film provided to him by the Polaroid Corporation. If color photography was vulgar, so too in the 1970s America—the land of Watergate, “ Let’s Make a Deal,” muscle cars, polyester pantsuits, boom boxes and disco balls.

To photographers who were, or soon would be, working in color (scraping enough money together to cover the lab fees for their first creamy-looking C0prints, or buying Cibachrome kits to make deep-hued, metallic-looking and shiny little prints at home), those offended by what was soon being called “new color photography” were clinging to outdated assumptions about what significant photography should look like. In his recent book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Deckle Edge, 2010), Jaron Lanier, an early advocate of digital culture and virtual reality, identifies a phenomenon called “lock-in”—a situation that results when a mindset shaped by a spectific technology limits all subsequent decisions and actions. The standardization of the gauge of railroad tracks, Lanier suggests, locked-in the size and speed of all trains for generations to come. When lock0in is in effect, one path taken becomes the path. Thinking gets “frozen into place,” as Lanier describes it, by “defining, unchangeable rules.”

But, as history and the recent shift from film – to digitally based media reminds us, photography keeps evolving. Periodically, like it or not, photographers either dig in their heels or go along with technological and market-driven change. While black-and-white remained the lock0in mode for many, once color printing options became affordable, a roster of practitioners launched the equivalent of a photo0world liberation movement.

Works selected for inclusion in “Starburst” make the point that no single conceptual or technical approach dominated color photography in the ‘70s. As he moved from working in 35mm to larger-format cameras, Stephen Shore created uncommonly stately views of the commonest American places he could find. Jan Groover gained art- and photo-world fame with a series of precisionist abstractions of kitchen utensils. Eve Sonneman, distrusting the black-and-whiteness—and “truth”—of any single photograph, used seriality in color to question photography’s grasp of time and memory. Robert Heinecken’s rage-fueled montages—which involved printing “rude” sexual or political images over slick ads from women’s magazines—spoke as much to the malaise as to the passions of the time. Mitch Epstein, Leo Rubinfien and Joel Sternfeld, each working in the tradition of street photography, embraced the sensual warmth and chromatic spectacle of the world as fervently as they searched it for indicators of cultural, political and social flux.

In the catalogue, Moore explains his choice of the term “starburst,” defining it as an “intensely destructive and creative environment” triggered by “a collision or close encounter of two galaxies.” He then thoughtfully frames some of the photographic opportunities and issues of the time. Rubinfien, writing from a practitioner’s perspective, evokes the ambivalence and ambition of the period; he triggered a flashback in this reader’s mind of another bright-hued phenomenon of the ‘70s—Starburst Candy, with flavors that included Orange!, Lime!, Lemon! and Strawberry! “If, for instance, you were looking at the sky,” Rubinfien recalls, reminiscing about the colors one could tease out of Ektacolor prints, “they would allow you to say ‘robin’s egg,’ ‘azure,’ ‘Wedgwood’ or ‘cobalt,’ where in the days before you’d have been limited to ‘blue.’…The new materials could move you, then, toward truths that were not so stark and dire, but multivalent, and they could make the photographer himself less of a witness and judge, and more of an investigator.”

The search for “multivalent” truths characterized many of the political and personal quests we’ve come to associate with the ‘70s, from women’s and gay liberation to est and the human potential movement. These are, for the most part, only subtly hinted at by the work in “Starburst.” Art photographers usually chose to leave that kind of direct witnessing to documentary photographers and photojournalists. It is interesting to note, however, that the term “New Color Photography” emerged at the same time as “New Journalism,” another loose but useful catch-all for writers such as Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, who were challenging the lock-in tone of journalistic neutrality with their shrewdly observed cultural insights and colorful reporting.

Over a century of experience in extracting basic information from black-and-white photographs had preconditioned viewers to zero in on subject matter, but color images made by the photographers in “Starburst” offered up more roundabout and sensuous perceptual options for arriving at an image’s meaning. Rather than adopting the collar-grabbing tactics of conventional commercial imagery, some “new color” practitioners opted to use color subtly, in order to create a visual field that encouraged leisurely and perhaps more critical looking. A viewer’s gaze was meant to ping-pong across Barbara Kasten’s fractured studio still lifes, or scrutinize John Pfahl’s manipulated landscapes for visual clues. Surprising patterns of bright color in images shot after dark—as in John Divola’s dusky photographs of graffiti-covered beach house walls or Richard Misrach’s flash-lit views of Hawaiian underbrush—elicited their share of “oh, wow!” responses. Unexpected pockets of chroma in Helen Levitt’s odes to the sooty side streets of New York proved to be as lyrical as the sunsets and skies that dominated Joel Meyerowitz’s Turneresque homages to Cape Cod. To judge from then-contemporary fashion, movies, record covers, appliances and home furnishings, the color wheel of the ‘70s was mired in a zone of earth tones: tans, beiges, avocado green, harvest gold, brown and more brown—a somber palette resisted by many of the photographers in “Starburst.”

Mounting concern about the chemical stability of color prints cooled institutional and collector support for the new work. The market began to widely embrace ‘70s color photography only in the 1980s, when corporate art buyers became its most enthusiastic supporters. Office corridors and walls were lined with prints that—should they fade from their constant exposure to fluorescent bulbs and sunlight—could be depreciated and replaced, like any other piece of office equipment. In time, more adventurous collectors and museums (some of which, like the Art Institute of Chicago, built cold-storage facilities to protect color work and their investment in it) signed on as well. Now that digital technology and archival pigments make it possible for ‘70s color images to be printed again—this time around with more nuance, and certainly at a scale not possible earlier (as is the case with Joel Sternfeld’s recent larger prints of works from the ‘70s)—the future and fate of a fuller range of work from the era seems more secure.

As both Crump and Moore point out in the catalogue, color was not the only photographic game in town in the ‘70s. Image-makers who were characterized as the photographers of “New Topographics” in 1975, or as members of the “Pictures Generation” at the decade’s close, were attracting attention, too. Douglas Fogle’s exhibition “The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982,” presented at the Walker Art Center in 2003, documented still more ways that color photography was employed by artists who generally worked in other mediums and outside the photo-world discourse of the time. All it takes is a look at one of Bruce Nauman’s screaming-green “Studies for Holograms (1-3),” 1970, or Ed Ruscha’s curious “Tropical Fish” photo-lithographs (1975) to see how color photography was key to a wide range of artistic goals. What makes “Starburst” timely and particularly valuable is that, like a snapshot, it captures the specifics and atmosphere of a fertile moment in photographic history, before the very concept of “art photography” would start to feel like yet another example of lock-in.

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