December 18, 2013
John Rohrbach, the senior curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum, has put together an exhibition entitled Color! American Photography Transformed.
Colour was technically too complex and too expensive in photography until Kodachrome, introduced in 1935, made color available to the masses; the brilliant slides it produced were easy to take and relatively inexpensive. Kodacolor, introduced in 1942, was a negative film from which multiple prints could be made. The public took to color immediately because it made snapshots more lifelike, but the art community hesitated. The latter puzzled over the issue as to whether pictures should be of color or in color; that is, is color what the image is about, or is the color simply additive.
William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis) 1970, Dye inhibition print
It was not until the 1960s and 70s that some of America’s most talented photographers tried their hand at color photography, on the pages of lifestyle magazines like Vanity Fair, Vogue and House and Garden. A watershed moment for color photography, its acceptance by the fine art establishment, is arguably marked by William Eggleston’s 1976 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art's director of photography, opened "Photographs by William Eggleston " in one of MoMA's prime exhibition spaces. Critics despised the 75 snapshot like dye-imbibition prints and the public was perplexed. Rohrbach writes:
the dye imbibition process allowed Eggleston to draw attention to color without making it the subject of the photograph. It enabled his colors to simultaneously describe and hover, actively shaping the emotional tenor of his images without getting in the way of subject.
In this exhibition, which was a balance of documenting the world and a study of color itself, Eggleston understands how we see in color. Memphis reproduces a dated tiled bathroom, pond scum and all, immersing us in the color green and it becomes an example of what color photography could be.
After Eggleston a newer generation of artists in the 1980s made color photography a seemingly standardized method of photographing the world. The usual names in the canon are Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld in that they shaped the creative language for the use of colour. The art world’s acceptance of color photography over recent years has transformed the medium into today’s dominant art form.
Richard Misrach, Paradise Valley (Arizona), 3.22.95, 7:05 P.M, 1995, Dye coupler print
The rise of digital technologies furthered this transformation, as photographers such as Gregory Crewdson Richard Misrach and Alex Prager have explicitly embraced the hues, scale, and even subjects of painting and cinema.