Give Me Those Nice, Bright Colors

Scholar John Rohrbach shows how color photography developed

Stephen Shore, 'West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October 2, 1974,' Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York
Stephen Shore, 'West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October 2, 1974,' Courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York (Courtesy of Stephen Shore)

Many consider the arrival of William Eggleston's Guide to be the beginning of color photography, including – at least initially – John Rohrbach. But the senior curator of photographs at Ft. Worth's Amon Carter Museum revealed the hidden history of color photography in a talk at the Contemporary Austin on March 20.

Drawing on his book In Color!: American Photography Transformed, newly published by UT Press, Rohrbach showed that not only was color photography an important enterprise as early as the 1940s, but that its origins go back almost 100 years before that. In this talk sponsored by the Austin Center for Photography, Rohrbach guided a packed room through a brief tour of this historical period in American photography, complete with a slide show spanning the era.

The story begins in the middle of the 19th century when Levi Hill, a rural preacher in the Catskills of upstate New York, took up photography after coming down with a recurring case of laryngitis. He sought out painter Asher Durand and was given the following advice: Find a way to make color photography, "and you will be ahead of all the painters.”

Hill went to work and by 1851 had published a treatise on his invention, claiming a formula for making photographic images in color. Nearly two years later, he finally displayed one of these images, and the reaction was muted, as were the colors. Small amounts of red and blue could barely be seen and left viewers underwhelmed.

Fast forward to the turn of the century, when famed photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz got in on the action. Panchromatic film was developed in France by the Lumière brothers, and six months later Stieglitz declared it a revolution in photography. Six months after that, he reversed course and abandoned color photography. After finding it exceedingly hard to display and sell, he claimed that aesthetically, color photography was too real and that only monochrome photography could be considered art as it showed an interpretation of the world, not a boring exact replica. It wasn't until the 1940s that color photography began to take hold, with artists such as Paul Outerbridge and James Doolittle creating great works using the tricolor carbro process. The expense and arduous nature of the endeavor, however, kept it an exclusive activity. It wasn't until the creation of Kodachrome that color photography came to the masses. The ease of development and printing made it available to all comers.

From that point, two camps emerged in the art photography world: those like Jack Delano who believed in a straightforward representation of our world with all of the detail color provides; and those like Henry Holmes Smith who believed in experimentation and an ultimately abstract portrayal of the subject.

Before long, this was considered a false dichotomy by publishers, and elements of both styles were were used in a variety of images. Color even made its way into photojournalism via photographers like Gordon Parks, but it was soon abandoned as again being too real. The average reader didn't want too much reality to invade the news.

With Eggleston's work, all of this was brought to fruition. His champion, John Szarkowski, made the case for this type of photography not just with the publication of William Eggleston's Guide, but with a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. Using the famous image of the green-tiled bathroom, Rohrbach explained that with an Eggleston photograph, it was impossible to separate the color from the content. It is both equally a picture of a bathroom and a picture of green. The two go hand in hand, each enhancing the other. As Szarkowski declared, "These works are perfect."

As the 1970s moved along, more photographers entered the fray, such as Mark Cohen and Joel Sternfeld, aided by institutions willing to fund them with grants to explore this exploding area of photography. Soon social issues came into play, with photographers like Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons exploring feminism and related topics through their work.

Rohrbach singled out contemporary photographer Alec Soth for directing his use of color very discretely. In an image of a red-headed woman against a gray background, Rohrbach saw a representation of the history of color photography. The past is comprised of monochromatic images, but the future comes in splashes of well-placed color. With digital cameras and Photoshop, artists can almost paint with color now via photographic means. The future will surely be filled with many more great images, but as recent history tells us, color isn't going anywhere.

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Austin Center for Photography, Austin photography, John Rohrbach, UT Press, Contemporary Austin, Amon Carter Museum

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