Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970, opened last week in New York. This show re-examines of a crucial moment in photography’s short history, when the artistic relevance of colour in fine art photography had yet to be determined. Uniting works for the first time by many of the “first generation” practitioners of colour photography including: Marie Cosindas, Arthur Seigel, Harry Callahan, Eliot Porter, Saul Leiter, Marvin E. Newman, Pete Turner, Ruth Orkin and Ernst Haas. Other highlights include images exhibited for the first time by Magnum’s first female member, Inge Morath (1923 – 2002), as well as special slide projection of colour images by Garry Winogrand, images that were never printed by the artist.
The show is attempting to reclaim a precise moment in photographic history that has only started to attract critical attention. Let’s think about this in more detail. After the conclusion of World War II, innovations in technology combined with the public’s desire to “see the world as it is” resulted in an explosion in the usage of colour imagery by the mass media. By 1951, commercial colour television broadcasting had begun, and in 1954, half of all American films were made in colour. Today in our ultra-visual world, it seems hard to imagine all images in black & white. It sort of makes me think of the film Pleasantville (1998), when the world was seen in black & white, and slowly as people changed, reflecting how the society was changing (for the better or worse) the world started to appear in colour. This show prompts the question what was the real impact on colour imagery in our culture?
In the early 1960s colour imagery was so prevalent that National Geographic magazine introduced a new era when it became the first major American publication to print an all-colour issue. While colour photography during this period was widely embraced by mass culture advertising and journalism– it continued to receive fewer acknowledgements in the fine art world when compared with images in black & white. For most in the fine art establishment, black & white photography represented the medium of choice, steeped in a century-old tradition it was easily accessible and affordable to artists, and possessed known archival stability. For this reason, few artists chose to work in colour and even fewer produced finished prints. Although color works had begun to selectively appear in museum exhibitions, most notably at the Museum of Modern Art, where single artist exhibitions of works by Eliot Porter (1943), Ernst Haas (1962) and Marie Cosindas (1966) were displayed, academic and institutional attention and support for this new technology was scant.
Over the past 40 years, work in colour created by artists during this formative period has received little attention. Most critical analysis through writings and exhibitions have focused on colour work created during the 1970s and 1980s after the now famous Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Photographs by William Eggleston (1976), curated by John Szarkowski. This MoMA exhibition set the groundwork for defining a new purpose for colour photography – one that focused more on the conceptual implications of the photograph and its creation, and away from the formalistic attributes of the image as well as the attention to colour itself. The effects of Eggleston’s exhibition and Szarkowski’s essay reverberate to this day. With a certain distance from this era when colour photography was new– its place in the art world no longer a question–this exhibition offers a crucial consideration of works created during this period and encourages a new perspective on the significance of these artists’ contributions to the history of photography.
Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970 continues until 23 October at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, 535 West 24th Street, New York, New York.
(c)Inge Morath / Magnum Photos, Hollywood, California (1959), Archival pigment print. 13 X 17 1/2 inches