Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970 at
Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York presents the work of eleven early
practitioners of color photography. After World War II, innovations in
technology and a new world view resulted in the widespread use of color
imagery by the mass media. Fine art photographers, however, were
hesitant to embrace the new style, favoring black and white photography
for its familiarity, accessibility, and affordability. For these
reasons, few artists chose to work in color between 1950 and 1970, but
those that did produced exceptional images that have in general received
little recognition when compared to later color photography (most
notably work following William Eggleston’s show at the Museum of Modern
Art in 1976). This incredible exhibition acknowledges the achievements
of these early artists and their significant contributions to the
Spanning three large rooms with over 70 photographs and a slideshow of 20 images, the show is organized by artist, and we are able to see the different ways that these individuals grappled with, and mastered, the use of color. The beauty of the work inspires a gut-level reaction, and it’s hard to imagine that at the time, color photography wasn’t immediately accepted into the art world. This was largely due to associations with commercial use of color, as well as the defining opinion that black and white was the standard for fine art photography. In seeing them today, however, the artistic merit of these works is unequivocal.
The work of Saul Leiter, for example, demonstrates an understanding of color that is likely the result of his background as a painter. While many color photographers at this time were still struggling to move beyond initial experimentation with the technology and achieve an artistic vision, Leiter had already found his. Working with color film as early as 1948, his images are rich yet restrained, and suggest a progressive appreciation of the abstract. In addition to being a regularly published fashion photographer, Leiter’s first exhibition of color photographs was held in the 1950s at the Artists’ Club, and he was also featured in a 1957 conference, “Experimental Photography in Color,” at the Museum of Modern Art.
Unlike Leiter, Inge Morath’s color photography has only recently been discovered, and Beyond COLOR is its first U.S. exhibition. Shooting in color since 1953, Morath was greatly inspired by the work of her friend and colleague Ernst Haas, whose thoughtful, avant-garde photographs are also featured in this show. Morath was the first official female member of Magnum Photos, one of the oldest and most prestigious photo agencies. She often preferred to work in color, and the photographs in this show speak to her passion and ability – applying a mastery of light, shadow, and perspective to create dreamy, reflective compositions. With many of the 55,000 color slides she shot throughout her career still undocumented, there is more opportunity for exhibition of her work.
Known as one of the first masters of color photography, Pete Turner’s photographs demonstrate how technological advancements and an understanding of process affected and allowed for further aesthetic breakthroughs. Turner, who served with the second signal combat photography team at the Army Pictorial Center, was able to play with new color processes, such as dye transfer, at the military’s photo lab. The unique style that evolved is marked by intense, lustrous tones, and was often created using color filters to produce unnatural effects – a cutting-edge development for the time. He also experimented with graphic and surreal imagery, layering elements to create complex compositions. His ingenuity made him a sought after commercial photographer while still breaking new ground in the field of fine art photography, and his work was widely published and circulated in the 1960s.
One of the standout achievements of the show is a slideshow of 20 color photographs by Garry Winogrand. Winogrand’s color photography exists primarily in slide form, and thus has been rarely exhibited (it has been over 40 years since it was last shown in New York). Here, the slideshow provides a look at Winogrand’s process. In the 1950s and 1960s, he seemingly carried two cameras – one filled with black and white film, and the other with color. Black and white photography still dominated most of his shooting, but the color camera was often used just moments before or after. While this seems like an exercise in experimentation, the color photographs he produced from these sessions are nothing short of brilliant. Applying the same principles of perspective and movement that enliven his black and white photography while employing a keen awareness of color and detail, the result is smart, affecting images that border on surreal.
Also on view is the work of Marie Cosindas, Arthur Siegel, Harry Callahan, Eliot Porter, Marvin E. Newman, Ruth Orkin, and Ernst Haas.
Beyond COLOR is at once historical and fresh. Without any context, the photographs are remarkable, demonstrating true ingenuity in process and vision. In learning the time frame and circumstances of their creation, they become even more exceptional. This show is a rare opportunity to experience this often overlooked but important moment in the history of photography.
Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970
Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York, NY
September 16 – October 23, 2010