Some titans of art photography in the mid-20th century — Walker Evans and Edward Weston among them — condemned color photography as “vulgar” and too attached at the hip of commercial culture. For Weston photographing in color was almost too real, too close to real life; for Evans the resulting colors were garishly close to those used in advertising. Black and white work remained tied to both art photography and photojournalism through the 1960s.
But as “Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980,” now on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, makes clear, several traditional black and white photographers, such as Harry Callahan and Helen Levitt, among others, began shooting in color once color film became widely available. Despite his early objections, Evans also tried his hand at color in the 1970s with Polaroid’s SX-70 instant film camera, although his work is not represented in the show.
Curated by Kevin Moore, a graduate of Princeton’s Ph.D. program in art history, the traveling show is a must-see for anyone interested in the directions color photography migrated and in who some of the big players were in all the major genres — conceptual, street photography, appropriation, documentary, and planned setups. The show includes Robert Heinechen’s ghastly juxtapositions of appropriated Vietnam War newspaper images with sexually provocative and naive postwar advertisements; Mitch Epstein’s wonderfully theatrical street shots of moments in time, including one with the innocently perched World Trade Center towers as a backdrop; Neal Slavin’s roomful of identical twins and other incisive group portraits; and Jan Grover’s beautifully setup abstractions created with common dinnerware, that are curiously reminiscent of Edwards Weston’s nature abstractions.
Do not expect any coherent picture to emerge from this medley of photographers. Typical of group shows bracketed by a decade, this one does not hit home on a single theme. It is more a grouping of important photographers who used color film as a medium of choice. As Moore’s catalog essay shows, color photography was eventually “accepted” as fine art for many reasons, among them the fact that more artists began using color film because it became commercially available and relatively inexpensive, and also that the barriers guarding fine art’s status had finally loosened.
Moore sees the group simply as players in a field and market that was open to new ideas — ideas that sprang from a kind of post-1960s reassessment of art and life. “The lid blew off in 1976 with an exhibition titled ‘Photographs by William Eggleston,’” Moore suggests in the catalog. Thought banal by many critics at the time, Eggleston’s work in color departed from the norms of black and white photography in its non-heroic, casual, and somewhat bland images of people and objects in the South. It was neither documentary (like Evans), nor traditional street photography (like Gary Winogrand), and it took both critics and the public awhile to understand what Eggleston was doing. Yet Eggleston’s green tricycle, shot from a worm’s-eye perspective into the bowels of an American suburb, hit home on the shifting ground of both what was acceptable as art and how the country was changing.
The larger story here is that color photography expanded in the eyes of many when the art market loosened the reins on new mediums and themes taken from everyday life. Andy Warhol, for example, employed celebrity photographs in his silk-screen works of the 1960s. As Joel Smith, Princeton Art Museum’s photography curator (who holds a Princeton Ph.D. in art history), told me, the arrival of Pop Art lowered the barrier between what was considered high and low art — so that what Walker Evans had considered vulgar (the commercial) was now accepted in the highest echelons of the fine art world. If Warhol’s Pop iconography took the critics and the market by storm, then photographs of tricycles could more easily be taken seriously.
Smith sees Stephen Shore’s work as a key component in this shift. Shore himself photographed in Warhol’s orbit, and understood that Pop Art had changed the definitions of art. Three genres of his work are represented in “Starburst.” He first explored the conceptual possibilities latent in the photographic process itself by attempting to duplicate the bland and off-color postcards that until then represented places in the world. Who doesn’t recall those racks of vibrantly colored postcards at every tourist locale? Then he traveled outside the confines of New York City for the first time and let his camera go wild with snapshots of storefronts, buildings, signs, dogs, and people. These travelogue pictures, where his personal sensibilities come through in a casual way, are like a greatest hit parade of images from Flickr.com or any other self-contributing online site of today.
When he shifted to using a large-format camera later in the 1970s his vision changed yet again to “ordinary” scenes, the underpinnings of the postwar built environment — parking lots, gas stations, shopping malls, and commercial strips. The lime green and pink automobiles from Shore’s 1974 print ricochet off the retina with a pop.
This large-format work prefigured the work of Joel Meyerwitz, Joel Sternfeld, and Richard Misrach, among others. Who would have thought that Sternfeld’s early flash portraits on urban streets would lead to the beautifully composed Western scenes of the late 1970s? As “Starburst” documents, Shore, Meyerowitz, and Sternfeld all moved from momentary glances to more studied approaches in a larger format.
Did this then signal the end of street photography, the art of the spontaneous? On a personal level, I would hope that there is more to be said in this genre. As a budding street photographer in Boston in the early 1980s, I made the switch to color after learning to process color negatives and make prints. Trained to pick out forms and relationships as important framing devices for shooting in black and white, with color added to the mix a third eye was needed. Spots of color defined spaces within the image where forms had once dominated, as Mitch Epstein’s color-saturated work, Madison Avenue, illustrates in its enigmatic portrayal of a fleeting moment. A sharp, intuitive eye can pick out these snippets of time that tell us stories about ourselves as we traverse the world.
Starburst: Color Photography in America, 1970-1980, on view through Sunday, September 26, Princeton University Art Museum. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 1 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to p.m. 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.