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: Color Our World


Christian A. Peterson

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With a few noteworthy exceptions, photographers saw the world in only black and white for the first 100 years of the medium's history. Manufacturers such as Kodak introduced color slide and print materials shortly before World War II, but amateur snapshooters were their main customers. Not until the mid 1970s, when creative photography surged in general, did individuals devoted to artistic camera work seriously engage color photography.For the last 20 years photographers using color materials have been driven by two primary urges. One is to show the world around us largely as it appears to the objective eye; the other is to reveal the photographer's subjective, inner world, using the camera. Those feeling the first urge concern themselves with photographic "truths," generally making images that are sharply focused and easily recognizable. Photographers feeling the more subjective urge often make photographic "trials," creating pictures that are hand altered in some way and more personal in meaning.A selection of work addressing these two concerns was drawn entirely from the Institute's permanent collection, which includes about 500 color photographs.Photographers pursuing photographic truth revel in the everyday world as it exists around us. They are acute observers of life and wish to share with their viewers the experience of visual stimulus. It is as if they are pointing their fingers at scenes they have happened upon and are saying, "Look at this strange or beautiful thing." By focusing attention on their subject matter, these photographers make themselves invisible, using the camera as a sort of window on the world. The resulting images are generally quiet in mood, highly detailed, and naturalistic in color.William Christenberry's photograph 5-cent Sign, Demopolis, Alabama typifies this truthful approach. The image shows a portion of a Coca-Cola sign painted on the side of a brick building surrounded with lush vegetation. Christenberry captured the textured brickwork and encroaching vines in great detail and with seeming emotional detachment. He is a disciple of the Depression-era photographer Walker Evans and, similarly, a lover of Southern vernacular architecture and signage. He finds great quietude and a sense of history in such plain subjects, and always captures them in a straightforward manner.Trials
By contrast, color photographers pursuing more personal and inner truths love to experiment with their materials and challenge our way of looking at things. Instead of turning their cameras on the real world, they tend to turn the camera, metaphorically, upon themselves, delving into individual feelings and impressions. They focus on how we see rather than what we see. They fabricate their subjects, manipulate their imagery, or picture existing things in unorthodox ways. By utilizing a wide variety of both photographic and traditional printing processes, their multimedia pieces seem to put pure photography on trial.Judith Golden is among those who works in this mode. Her untitled picture of a woman's face is a partial self-portrait. Golden has taken a page from a fashion magazine, torn out the image of one eye, and held it up in front of her own face for the camera. She makes a wry commentary on the concept of perfect female beauty. Her heavy application of pigment (simulating lipstick, blush, and eyeliner) and the use of a glossy magazine image suggest the superficiality of women's images in the mass media. Golden regarded the photographic print as only raw material for her message, freely drawing on and coloring its pristine surface.The extremes of color truths and trials are easily discernible, but the two urges are not mutually exclusive. In fact, personal expression is at the heart of all the "truthful" work in this exhibition. And some conceptually oriented photographers make images that are fully based in the real world. Delineating two opposing poles only furthers our understanding of the great variety of color work that has emerged over the last few decades; it does not encompass or explain everything that has been done. Not essayed here, for example, is the burgeoning field of computer-generated imagery, in which much of the future of color photography lies. Fortunately, the computer holds out the prospect of saving for posterity uncounted important color images that currently exist in only fugitive materials.Christian A. Peterson is associate curator of photographs.This exhibition, which is on display until September 15, 1996 in the Harrison Photography Gallery, honors the generosity of N. Bud and Beverly Grossman Foundation. An accompanying brochure was made possible by the McClurg Fund.Related ImagesWilliam Christenberry
American, born 1936
5¢ Sign, Demopolis, Alabama, 1978
Color coupler printJudith Golden
American, born 1934
Untitled, 1977
Hand-colored gelatin silver print
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Source: Christian A. Peterson, "Color Our World: 'Truths and Trials: Color Photography Since 1975' explores photographers' personal expressions of the world around them," <i>Arts</i> 19, no. 7 (July/August 1996): 10-11.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009