Thursday, October 7, 2010

Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970 @Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A group show of 97 color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung throughout the front, main, and back gallery spaces. The works on display were made between 1950 and 1970 by 11 different artists. Details on the photographers and prints included in the show are below, with the number of images and relevant specifics in parentheses:

  • Harry Callahan (9 dye transfer prints, made between 1951 and 1970, most printed later, ranging in size from 7x7 to 10x14)
  • Marie Cosindas (9 works: 5 archival inkjet prints, made between 1965 and 1968, printed in 2010, ranging in size 8x10 to 12x17, 3 dye transfer prints, made and printed in 1966, ranging in size from 11x14 to 13x15, and 1 c-print, made in 1966, printed in 1970s, 12x15)
  • Ernst Haas (5 works: 4 dye transfer prints, made and printed between 1953 and 1960s, ranging in size from 11x17 to 15x22, and 1 chromogenic print, made in 1969, printed later, 30x40)
  • Saul Leiter (8 chromogenic prints, made between 1956 and 1959, printed later, all 14x11)
  • Inge Morath (8 archival pigment prints, made between 1957 and 1965, printed later, all 13x18 or reverse)
  • Marvin Newman (9 archival inkjet prints, made between 1953 and 1956, printed 2010, all 13x19)
  • Ruth Orkin (7 archival inkjet prints, made c1950, printed 2010, all 11x14 or reverse)
  • Eliot Porter (10 dye transfer prints, made between 1950 and 1968, all 10x12 or reverse)
  • Arthur Siegel (6 dye transfer prints, made c1950, all but one vintage, ranging in size from 7x10 to 10x12)
  • Pete Turner (6 dye transfer prints, made between 1963 and 1970, printed 1970s, ranging in size from 11x15 to 40x60)
  • Garry Winogrand (20 slides, made between 1950-1970, shown as projected slide show)

Comments/Context: Given the overwhelming dominance of color photography in our lives today, it's altogether surprising that the art historical narrative for this particular medium is still rather fluid and incomplete. Earlier this summer, the Starburst show at Princeton (review here) helped clarify the exciting period between 1970 and 1980, when Eggleston, Shore, Sternfeld and many others took color photography in a variety of new directions. But what was happening in color prior to that time has received much less scholarly attention. This ambitious gallery show attempts to step into that murky void, providing a companion piece covering the two decades prior to the 1970s color explosion.

One of my most important takeaways from Starburst was that the 1970s photographers found new ways to liberate themselves from the bonds of traditional subject matter. That show was filled with everything but the normal; it was filled with the quirky, the political, the mundane, the suburban, the conceptual, and even with color as the subject in and of itself. In contrast, when I walked through this show chronicling the period just before the 1970s, my strong reaction was: this is mostly black and white photography made in color. There is a heavy dose of street photography, mixed with a few landscapes, some portraits, and a still life or two, and with a few exceptions, most of the images are rooted in a recognizable black and white aesthetic.

The conclusion I draw from ideas underlying this show is that there really was a violent schism in the 1970s, a breaking away from what had come before. I can't say that I have ever heard that any of the notable 1970s color photographers say they were influenced by any the artists on view in this show (deepen my understanding in the comments if you can add something specific), and seeing this work, I can't say that I am particularly surprised. To my eye, the impressionistic work of Saul Leiter (which I am finding increasingly amazing as I see more of it) and a few of Harry Callahan's dye transfers are the only images that seem to consistently reach for something beyond the boundaries of black and white. The others have moments when a single image crosses into the new world, but that innovative energy isn't sustained.

Overall, I think the gallery deserves credit for digging into a subject that needed some further investigation and for putting together a varied exhibit of representative work. This show is full of complex issues and ideas to keep your brain busy, but unfortunately the work itself is mostly forgettable. Even if all of the work isn't durably original, as a whole, this period of change is still an important historical link worth understanding. In many ways, this is a show of transitional, now extinct species, which tried to adapt to the new environment, but in the end, lost the battle of natural selection.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows:
  • Harry Callahan: $8500 or $9500 each
  • Marie Cosindas: dye transfers $15000 or $20000 each, c-print $7500, recent inkjet prints $3000 each
  • Ernst Haas: dye transfers between $25000 and $40000 each, chromogenic print $5250
  • Saul Leiter: $4000 each
  • Inge Morath: $2600 each
  • Marvin Newman: $3000 each
  • Ruth Orkin: $2750 each
  • Eliot Porter: most $2500 to $3000 each, one print at $12000
  • Arthur Siegel: between $8500 and $20000
  • Pete Turner: small sizes $5000, large sizes $38000
  • Garry Winogrand: not for sale
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Reviews: Wall Street Journal (here), New York Photo Review (here)
Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970
Through October 23rd

Bruce Silverstein Gallery
535 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

4 comments:

John Legweak said...

A really interesting post. You seem to arrive at the standard view that the New Color was step forward from the color that immediately preceded it, but you get to it by a different route, focusing on subject matter rather than formal concerns. (Apologies if I'm simplifying to much.)

I'm hoping to see the show next week, but in the meantime, do you have any comments on the WInogrand slides?

dlkcollection said...

John,

I think that's a fair summary, although I think that form and subject matter are completely intertwined in this case. The break happens when color in itself is recognized and reconsidered, not as an overlay to the existing black and white world, but as an entirely new force that requires and enables new subject matter.

As for the Winogrands, they look exactly like images from Women Are Beautiful, only in color.

John Legweak said...

I like what you’re saying but I wonder to what extent color “enabled” or “required” new subject matter as opposed to the weaker “worked well with” new subject matter that was coming to the fore anyway. But if by “required” you mean “needed to make it appear separate from and complementary to black and white”, then, yes, I can definitely see that.

The question might seem kind of theoretical or academic, but I think it has an empirical basis and can be resolved by looking at enough pictures of the period and reading/listening to enough of what the photographers and commentators involved said about it at the time.

Thanks for the brief but clear description of the Winogrand slides. I personally like his pictures of women because I can feel drive in them, but I can understand how many people don’t regard them as his best work. In any case I hope to get to see them next week.

RedSardine said...

Evelyn Hofer was a master of colour photography that merits a place in the history of the medium and attention from collectors (her series of dye transfers are superb). The New York Times carried a piece on her life and work last November after she passed away.