If color photography had been invented first, would anyone have missed black-and-white?
"If color photography had been invented first, would anyone have missed black-and-white?" Judy Linn, 1980
Color photography has its own place today in museums, exhibitions, and the art market. In 2006 Sotheby’s auctioned a work by German photographer Andreas Gursky for more than two million dollars. The medium has been booming since the 1980s, even though a decade earlier it was still not really an acknowledged art form. Until well into the 1970s, the only photographs that were actually collected and exhibited were in black-and-white. The reluctance to accept color photography was mainly due to conservation reasons, since the pigmentation in early color photographs was highly unstable. Even more difficult to overcome was the aesthetic prejudice against color photography, since it was widely used by many amateurs, as well as by professional journalists, advertisers, mass media, and the entertainment industry.
Recognition of color photography as an art form is a cultural phenomenon, as well as the result of a process of aesthetic emancipation, which began in the 1970s in the United States, and progressed so rapidly that just a decade later, the difference between color and black-and-white photography began to seem obsolete. Strictly speaking, therefore, the history of color photography only goes back to the 1980s—after that, it disappears in the history of photography.
Kodak and Agfa had their first successes on the market with commercially viable color reversal transparency film in the 1930s. In 1942 both companies introduced color negative film, and produced it under the brand names Agfacolor and Kodachrome until 2005 and 2009, respectively. The complicated development process could only be carried out in a lab and was difficult to control, and that fueled artists’ prejudices against the medium. If the final product was ultimately determined by chemicals and lab personnel, how could it be art, and how much of the work could the photographer claim as his own?
A turning point in the history of color photography was the exhibition Photographs by William Eggleston at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976. Eggleston’s (*1939) motifs came from different places in the Mississippi Delta, very close to his home town of Memphis, Tennessee. He took pictures of friends and acquaintances, cemeteries, children from the suburbs, parked cars, garbage dumps, fields, city buildings, everyday interiors, and apparently trivial snapshots. One of the most famous of these photos is Greenwood, Mississippi, also known as Red Ceiling. Taken in 1973, it features a naked light bulb and a few pipes in front of a background comprised of the ceiling of a room, painted red.
Art critics vented their displeasure over the ordinariness of the subjects and Eggleston’s non-committal, passive, almost apathetic attitude toward his motifs—all the more so, because the intensely colored, dye-transfer photographs displayed great technical and compositional virtuosity. Despite all of his artistry, all of the obvious effort and care, the artist clearly had nothing to say; his pictures seemed to say to the observer: I don’t care what you see in them; see what you want to see.
Actually, the photographs composed a precise image of the zeitgeist of the Nixon era, while at the same time promulgating the theory that a specific color-photography aesthetic could be derived from the qualities that apparently seemed to contradict their claim to be art: their casualness, the ordinary subjects, the photographs’ direct relationship with the reality they portrayed, and the way that every photograph reflects upon its own process of creation and the cultural history of color photography as a medium. Eggleston led the way for generations of artists that came after him, playing masterfully with viewers’ habitual ways of seeing, which were marked by mass media, as well as by the ambiguity of media.
The aesthetic emancipation of color photography was continued by new artists in the field of artistic documentary photography. Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander revolutionized the genre with an emphatically subjective perspective. In the 1960s Winogrand (1928–1984) began using color photography to articulate the decreasing distance between the object and the viewer. Toward the end of the 1970s, the young photographer Nan Goldin (*1953) started focusing her camera on herself and her personal surroundings. She used the aura of privacy that adheres to the color photography, in order to tell “true” stories about drug addiction, dependency, and violence (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1979–1986).
Obviously, color photography arrived at just the right point in time to act as a catalyst for a comprehensive change that would affect all of the fine arts, as the belief in the image as a self-contained work came into question. Above all, the emergence of Conceptual Art, which gave precedence to ideas before forms, quickly led Conceptualists to realize that photography was the most suitable and easily available medium for them, since, as a medium, it was so ordinary that it would not draw attention to itself. The photo was supposed to convey an idea, not be a work of art itself. “I was meticulously copying other art and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead,” explained Cindy Sherman (*1954), whose work combines Conceptualist strategies with staged photography.
Besides William Eggleston, Stephen Shore (*1947) was one of the most influential photographers of the early 1970s. His work, which was shown in 1977 at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, greatly influenced the development of fine arts photography in Germany. Paying homage to Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Robert Frank’s famous series of portraits, The Americans, Shore undertook a road trip across America in 1972. On the way, he photographed fast-food restaurants, motels, gas stations, and the edges of the roadway, taking pictures of many motifs which were so trivial that no amateur would have bothered to even take a snapshot of them: open refrigerators, toilets, sinks, drugstore shelves, and fast food meals. He had the prints made in drugstores, and even their small size corresponded to the conventions of amateur photography. Shore gave the project a title laced with innuendo: American Surfaces.
Shore’s approach was documentary-style, uncritical, artless; his randomly selected motifs and angles gave the pictures an anonymous quality, left them without a signature, and yet, they were uniquely and purely determined by his subjective perspective. “. . . [I]f you remove as much of the photographic convention as possible, what you’re left with is yourself, and how you see,” said Shore in an interview. Shore was interested in the hard-to-grasp difference between a subjective perspective, whose expansion of time limited it to a brief moment, and the recording of this, fixed in a photograph.
Shore later pursued this idea in large formats, producing perspectives of apparently randomly selected sections of streets, highways, and house façades. His works were shown at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1977 and the Documenta 6, which turned for the first time to historic and contemporary photography. These exhibitions were facilitated by Bernd Becher, who had been the photography professor at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie (Düsseldorf art school) since 1976. In autumn 2010 the NRW Forum Kunst und Kultur (North-Rhine-Westphalian Forum for Art and Culture) devoted an exhibition to Shore’s influence on the artists who had studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher—the so-called “Becher classes.””—under the title Stephen Shore and the New Düsseldorf Photography.
Some of the now world-famous Becher students are Candida Höfer (*1944), Axel Hütte (*1951), Thomas Struth (*1954), Andreas Gursky (*1955), Thomas Ruff (*1958), Rineke Dijkstra (*1959), and Elger Esser (*1967). The Becher School established certain themes in fine arts photography, such as consumer culture, alienation, work and leisure time, technology and traffic, overpopulation and urban growth. Self-confidently, the Düsseldorf School created large-format photos and emphasized the autonomy of the individual image as a self-contained work, which needed no other context as an intermediary.
The great attraction of contemporary photography as an object for museums and collectors is closely connected to the reemergence of the panel painting. This is not only articulated through the increasingly large formats, but also in the expense of pictures that are very complicated to make. Even in the pre-digital era, Canadian artist Jeff Wall (*1946) pushed the genre of the staged photograph to the limits with his large transparencies shown inside illuminated display cases. Wall’s theme is definitely reality itself, but compared to photographers like Shore and Eggleston, he does not simply want to take pictures, but to depict images. Andreas Gursky represents a similar point of view, saying in an interview, “The only way to depict reality is to construct it.” In the age of unlimited possibilities offered by digital photo processing, it might seem paradoxical that photography seems to be returning to the classic compositional techniques of painting, as well as to a conservative concept of art.
Gursky’s tableaux, in particular, might easily be accused of giving into the traditional perspective of the museum visitor, while their classic composition invites quick consumption. At first glance, from a distance, his landscapes, architectural pictures, interiors, and crowd scenes seem to harmonic, balanced compositions with a single perspective. As a matter of fact, however, there is no focus; each motif is subtly positioned and meticulously worked out. Each and every time the viewer gets closer and more intently involved, he stumbles into an infinitely complex world of motifs, relationships, and perspectives. By reflecting the relationship between reproduction and authenticity, Gursky’s photographs remain true to one of the great aesthetic leitmotifs of photography, whose artistic potential has in no way been exhausted, despite the flood of images produced in the digital age.
Heinrich Kühn, »Mary Warner und Edeltrude«, approx. 1908, detail
Andrea Gern, Historian / Art Historian, M.A., Studied history and art history at the Universität Stuttgart; freelance author in the fields of art and culture since 1994; editor of the culture section of the journal ELLE PLUS since 1999; adjunct member of the editorial staff, culture department of the Stuttgarter Nachrichten; adjunct instructor of art and cultural history at the Staatliche Modeschule Stuttgart, the Stuttgarter Berufskolleg Mode and the Fachhochschule Schwäbisch Hall.
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