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When Color Was New

Posted in PHOT 165 by Paul Turounet on September 8, 2008

© William Christenberry, Cannon’s Grocery, near Greensboro, AL, 1972 (top left); Paul Outerbridge, Untitled (Beach Equipment), 1936 (top middle left); Arthur Siegel, Untitled (store window), 1951 (top middle right); Terry Wild, Venice, CA, 1971 (top right); Mitch Epstein, Topanga Canyon, California, 1974 from the series Recreation (middle right); William Eggleston, Memphis, 1969 (bottom right); Helen Levitt, New York, 1972 (bottom middle); Martin Parr, from the series Last Resort, 1982 (bottom left); and Stephen Shore, New York City, NY, Sept-Oct 1972 from the series American Surfaces (middle left)

The Julie Saul Gallery recently had an exhibition, When Color Was New – Vintage Photographs from the 1970’s, which provided a historical context on the role and function of color in photography as well as examining the work that has set the precedence for contemporary color photographic practice.

The selection is comprised of 40 works by 20 photographers ranging from the straight street or snapshot aesthetic of Helen Levitt, William Eggleston, and Joel Meyerowitz to more conceptually based work of contemporaries Boyd Webb, John Pfahl, Dan Graham and Luigi Ghirri. Hybrids exist as well as in the straight yet formally driven compositions of Jan Groover and David Hockney. The diaristic quality of the snapshot aesthetic, which is such a standard feature of art school production, is beautifully demonstrated by the prints of Stephen Shore.

Self proclaimed art photographers have experimented with the use of color from the mediums’ early days, as seen in the autochromes of Edward Steichen. Some examples of color work made prior to the 1970s are featured in the show to demonstrate the “pre-history” of color art photography, especially as used by cross-over commercial/art practioners Paul Outerbridge Jr, Arthur Seigel and Harry Callahan.

It was only with the imprimatur given by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 with his controversial exhibition of William Eggleston’s Guide, that color became generally accepted within the art canon. The trickle down effect took hold almost immediately within institutions and art schools- and by the mid-1980s color was the most widely used medium in art photography and today it is ubiquitous.

Altogether, this group of images, which range from still life to landscape and street photography demonstrate a moment when there was novelty and even shock in the use of color in an art context- while today it certainly represents the norm. Almost all of the prints in the exhibition were made at or around the time of the negative, allowing us to reflect on the historical appearance of color print, which today are almost universally printed digitally.

– from exhibition press release

The exhibition link, When Color Was New – Vintage Photographs from the 1970’s, is insightful with a full description of the exhibiton, plentiful images with a checklist as well as links to reviews of the exhibition.

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