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Colorama | MAM exposes the evolution of color photography

In William Eggleston’s photograph “Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973,” white electric cords travel to a dismal power source and a lone light bulb hangs from the ceiling – a decadent red ceiling.

Eggleston’s avant garde print is included in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s sensuous “Color Rush: 75 Years of Color Photography in America.” The exhibition, which covers the period 1907-1981, explores the once experimental medium as fine art instead of merely new technology.

Lisa Hostetler, former MAM curator of photography, and Katherine Bussard, assistant curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, collaborated on the exhibition of more than 200 objects. Featured are framed photographs, slide shows and commercial photos created by renowned photographers, including Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Jan Groover, Barbara Kasten, Saul Leiter and Nicklolas Murray.

In an exhibition gallery talk, Hostetler observed, “There are so many applications that it’s harder for the public to understand we all use photography to document personal history.” Every day, millions of images are transmitted from tablets and smartphones.

The world has been clicking out color prints since 1907, with introduction of the autochrome. The invention transformed the course of American culture because life and love in the home and workplace could finally be captured in blooming color. National Geographic was one of the first major publications to document the world in color. In 1916, the magazine embraced autochrome, publishing color spreads that brought vivid images of distant places to a domestic audience. Two National Geographic photos in MAM’s exhibit, “A Striking Pose in the East Indian Dance” and “Poetry of Motion and Charm of Color” portray exotic costumes and culture by posing Indian dancers.

Fashion magazines, most notably Condé Nast publications, began to embrace the color process after Vogue, on July 20, 1932, featured its first color cover – a picture of a slim woman clad in a one-piece red suit and a tight, white cap holding a red-and-white beach ball above her head. Edward Steichen, one of the first photographers to experiment with color photography, took the picture.

After those initial introductions, fashion and home magazines continued the color trend. Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographed an elegant model in a red-green dress against a sandy desert for Harper’s Bazaar in 1938. Then, in 1941, Dahl-Wolfe shot a cover photograph of a woman with an open turban around her hair peering into a mirror while applying lipstick. The muted palettes in those fashion spreads challenged the brighter hues typically used for advertising in commercial magazines.

Anton Bruehl expanded the trend with photographs for Vanity Fair, while Life Magazine published patriotic color spreads during World War II. Life’s multiple-page, colored photo essays entranced the public throughout the 1950s.

Also in the 1950s, Walker Evans, known for images documenting the Depression, submitted color photographic stories for Fortune Magazine. His subtle rusty reds and dusty earth brown shades of rural American landscapes  contrasted with the vibrant colors of movie publicity shots that reflected the “Golden Age of Technicolor.” 

Early on, many fine art photographers dismissed incorporating color as “too amateur, experimental and commercial,” but they eventually began to see color’s promise, following in the footsteps of Steichen, Stieglitz and László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian working in America with color (and featured in the MAM exhibition) believed there would come a “time when color would be understood for its own sake not as a symbol or object, ... a new way of looking at the world ... through a window of abstraction by manipulating the color.”

Two “Color Rush” prints by Harry Callahan celebrate the diversity in fine art photography. Callahan’s silver dye print “Abstraction, 1943-1947” evokes emotion by weaving waves and ribbons of pink and red hues without any representational images. Alongside Callahan’s “Abstraction” hangs his “Detroit, 1951,” which portrays a Ragsdale Beauty Shop window adorned with a neon pink sign advertising poodle cuts and cold wave permanents for $2.95. 

After the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s, the Pop Art movement arrived in full-blown, living color in the next decade. Color photographers were being criticized for using abstraction or, on the other extreme, for shooting realism and “being too literal” to be considered fine art.

“Projects: Helen Levitt in Color” features 40 slide prints that examines America’s burgeoning metropolises by catching unique personalities eating snow cones, looking out of broken windows and sitting in isolation on steps. Stephen Shore also focused on isolation when he photographed America on his iconic 1970s road trip. His example in “Color Rush” is the work “Presidio, Texas, 1975,” which depicts a solitary landscape. 

Color photography grew in popularity with the use of Kodachrome, a film Americans could easily purchase to record their holidays and vacations to view at home. Nan Goldin upends the domestic slide show in her not-to-be-missed, seminal installation that was featured at a 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition – “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (the title was taken from a Bertolt Brecht song in “The Threepenny Opera”). At MAM, Goldin’s 720 slides, which require 42 minutes to view, loop continuously on a screen. Hidden in a dark room behind a curtain, the installation carries a warning due to Goldin’s raw, uncensored vision. 

Goldin’s provocative images portray life, love and loss on the edge in New York City’s debased environments, overflowing with cigarettes, drinking and drugs. Intertwined relationships of every sexual age and orientation come to the screen. Unmade beds covered with empty, white sheets and artfully placed pillows reflect the loving or unloving acts committed in these ordinary places. A soundtrack accompanies the installation. “Memories are Made of This” plays as the viewer sees headstones and gravesites, including a tiny marker that reads “BABY.” 

Directly across from the exhibition, two women photographers display their individual take on changing culture. Susan Meiselas exposes the color of war in her poignant photographs, taken from her book “Nicaragua, June 1978 to 1979.” Another renowned contemporary photographer, Cindy Sherman, presents “Untitled #77,” a print from her “Rear Screen Projections” series, in which her transformed self-portraits explore stereotyped female roles underscored in the movie industry.

While the world always has existed in color, photography has only presented life in color for 100 years. Photography defined as an art form has struggled to gain acceptance since its inception and incorporating color contributed to the confusion. As Hostetler explained, “Color was too literal to be real, too close to reality to have expressive potential.” 

But “Color Rush” proves that assertion to be false.

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