When Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski devoted an exhibition to the color photography of the then-unknown William Eggleston in 1976, the storm of criticism was intense. The exhibition, said one commentator, was “the most hated show of the year.” Color photography was the purview of slick magazine advertising and fashion layouts, not meant for museums and galleries.
Within a decade, however, as surely as CDs quickly replaced vinyl recordings and now Internet downloading and streaming replaced CDs, fine art photography became a color medium. Black-and-white photography was passé.
“We live in a color world,” said John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, meaning not just that human beings perceive the world in color but that the media — film, video, television, print and photography — are drenched in color.
Rohrbach organized the exhibition “Color! American Photography Transformed,” opening Sunday at Dixon Gallery and Gardens for display through March 23. He will be at the Dixon on opening day to talk about transformational implications of color photography.
While Memphis-native Eggleston became one of the most influential forces in photography in the second half of the 20th century, photographers had grappled with the issues of color since the process was developed in the 1830s in France and England. “It was a definite disappointment,” said Rohrbach, in a telephone interview, “to early photographers that their cameras could only capture black and white, but within 10 or 15 years of photography’s invention, the convention of black and white took hold. That is, we should take what the camera produces and accept it.”
Still, photographers and the public regarded color as the ideal for which hand-tinted daguerreotypes could not be a complete substitute. The “problem of color” entailed two issues: first, transforming the image to color on the photographic plate, and, second, “fixing” the color so that it would be permanent. What ultimately had to occur was the invention of photographic materials that would register all of the colors of the spectrum.
The invention of Autochrome in the late 19th century by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, and its commercial introduction in 1907, advanced notions of color photography, but the process was slow and expensive. It took the Kodak company and the urging of its founder George Eastman to make color photography not only widely available but reliable and inexpensive. Launched for still cameras in 1936 and improved in 1938, Kodachrome was a tremendous innovation and influence in the world of color photography until it was discontinued in 2009, as the use of digital photography became more widespread and inevitable.
“People who see the exhibition will be surprised by two aspects,” Rohrbach said. “First, at how long the early practitioners of photography worked on issues of color, and, second, that it took 40 years from the introduction of Kodachrome for color to be accepted in museums.”
Not that photographers well-known for their black-and-white work didn’t also make incursions into color. The exhibition, and the sumptuous catalog that accompanies it, make it plain that such midcentury artists as Walker Evans, Gary Winograd, Harry Callahan, Edward Weston, Clarence John Laughlin and even going back to Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen in the first decade of the 20th century were fascinated by the possibilities of color.
In the years since Eggleston’s controversial exhibition at MOMA — controversial not only for its use of color but also for its widely imitated, laconic “snapshot” visual stance — color photography has triumphed, a victory followed by the domination of digital photography and the proliferation of smartphones with cameras. Digital photography, said Rohrbach, involves even greater attentiveness on the part of the serious photographer.
“Now the photographer,” he said, “is responsible for every hue in the image. Photographers used to look to artists for a sense of form and content, but now photographers have to learn every bit as much about color and color relationships as painters do.”
‘Color! American Photography Transformed’
Sunday through March 23 at Dixon Gallery and Gardens,
4339 Park. Call 901-761-5250, or visit dixon.org.
Exhibition organizer John Rohrbach delivers the opening lecture at 2 p.m. Sunday.