Color greets visitors into the Amon Carter’s latest photography exhibition. Color! American Photography Transformed brings to Texas 75 works by some of the most recognizable names that have worked and experimented in the United States with this relatively new medium. A historical survey of American color photography, the show attempts to trace the evolution of the color photograph and its absorption into the artistic conversation. This exhibition and accompanying catalogue, crafted by Senior Curator of Photography John Rohrbach, is one that any student of the medium dares not miss.
Two works separated by a century and a half receive viewers as they enter the exhibition space: Cory Arcangel’s oversized Photoshop CS, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum,” mousedown y=1416 x=1000, mouseup y=208 x=42, 2009 and Levi Hill’s tiny Untitled, ca. 1851.
Arcangel’s work, from his Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations series, is concerned with the physical roots of the color photograph: anyone can produce this image with a minimal understanding of the program. Hill’s Hillotype (a color photographic process involving silver plates) from the earliest days of color photography, portrays a young girl and fawn adorned with flowers.
Color! traces the uphill battle fought by artists using the medium, from Hill’s early experiments to the adoption of the media by commercial users, then to its acceptance by the fine art establishment and its ultimate popularity among contemporary artists.
A relic of this battle is Alfred Stieglitz’ 1907 Frank Eugene, a simple portrait of the artist’s colleague drinking a stein of beer. This color lumière autochrome, an image printed on glass, is a rarity for the artist, renowned for his black and white images. Made when color photography was extremely expensive and hard to work with, the work represents a moment in which he dabbled in the medium, ultimately abandoning it two short years later.
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. Bridging the gap between fine art and fashion, photographers like William Klein produced images like Antonia + Yellow Cab, Tuffeau & Bush that drew in consumers and played with color in an abstract manner.
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, where works like Untitled (Memphis) were given pride of place in its coveted first-floor galleries. 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 becomes according to Rohrbach “the epitome of what color photography could be.”
After Eggleston, Robert Glenn Ketchum, and Mark Cohen experimented with the medium as art, a newer generation of artists in the 1980s played with color in inventive ways. For instance, Sandy Skoglund’s Revenge of the Goldfish, incorporated installation art and photography to create a whimsical dreamscape. Larger-than-life orange goldfish seemingly float around a painted turquoise room when a child rises from his sleep to find these intimidating creatures surrounding him, causing viewers to question the boundary between reality and fiction.
Tina Barney photographs her family in Beverly, Jill, and Polly, New York City, documenting their way of life and their upscale home. She uses color to speak about this manufactured, overly decorated setting, highlighting class and racial divides between the artist’s sisters and the household help, segmenting the space using soft hues of pink and yellow.
Using color in a very pointed manner, Andres Serrano’s stirring Madonna and Child II creates a haunting image that can both draw one in and push one away at the same moment. Serrano constructs a soft backlit scene that seems to elevate the religious figures that it portrays, until the viewer becomes aware that the yellows and oranges in the photograph are achieved by submerging the religious statue in bodily fluids, making the work a controversial commentary.
In the twenty-first century, color photography has seemingly become a standardized method of documenting the world. The capability of capturing such images is placed in the palm of every smart phone user’s hand. Color! American Photography Transformed not only makes visitors stop and ponder their relationship to this medium by inviting them to submit their own photographs to be placed on a timeline in the Carter’s entryway, but traces a clear line through the chapters of color photography’s history that will leave all viewers with a better understanding of a medium we all know and love.
Color! Will be on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art through January 5, 2014.