The Amon Carter Museum of American Art has one of the largest repositories of photographs of any fine art institution in the United States, and from its holdings has mounted scores of photographic exhibitions.
Its latest offering, “Color! America Photography Transformed,” tells the story of color photographs from the early, complex processes — with abysmal results — to glorious color-saturated digital successes.
Previous photographic exhibitions by the Carter have diluted the message of this one. Color photographs as hung in the museum’s galleries have always looked glorious, but that has not always been the case in the medium.
Here, curator John Rohrbach mounts evidence of the struggles fine art photographers had with the unstable medium. The results were so dicey and disappointing that many photographic champions abandoned it; black-and-white photographs were the only acceptable photographic art form for decades.
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It has only been since the 1970s that color photographs have been deemed acceptable for inclusion in many museums’ permanent collections, and even then, they are the efforts of a few select photographers.
Even though color photographs saturated the commercial print world in magazines and advertisements as a means of selling products, in the rarefied air of museums, it took years before they were accepted. Only photographer Irving Penn was able to transition from commercial great to museum collected, says Rohrbach.
Once color photography crossed the line from despicable to desired, great strides were made in color printing, and more photographers entered the field. So many did so, in fact, that a representative survey of color photography would take all the galleries in the Carter, all the galleries in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and perhaps even some in the Kimbell Art Museum to adequately tell the tale, says Rohrbach.
Unfortunately, he has been limited to the Carter’s temporary exhibitions space, which consists of four galleries with 75 photographs by an almost equal number of photographers.
Essentially, his tightly edited exhibition is in service to his exhaustive 336-page catalog. Here he follows the course of photographic color from the earliest hand-colored prints of the mid-19th century through the various experimental film and camera processes to the creation of Kodachrome (the second iteration; the first Kodachrome was a disappointment), and now to the digital world.
He includes the history of color’s champions, such as MOMA curator John Szarkowski, and the holdouts, such as the influential gatekeeper of all things photographic, Alfred Stieglitz, and the iconic landscape photographer Ansel Adams.
He documents the resounding uproar over the 1976 exhibition of the work of William Eggleston, the first photographer to get a solo show of color photographs at MOMA. Eggleston’s shots of common suburban life were cause for consternation in the world of fine art. They depicted the drab, treeless expanses of tract homes, station wagons and avocado green bathrooms. Their record of the common condition, though, was what photography did best — it was a mirror with a message. Reviews ranged from “perfect” to “dull and tacky.”
Color photographers found greater acceptance when their work channeled that of painters. Richard Misrach’s Paradise Valley (Arizona), 3.22.95 7:05 P.M. has all the gradient loveliness of a Rothko .
Dawoud Bey’s Nikki and Manting borrows the color palette of Rembrandt .
Sharon Core’s Peaches and Blackberries is a still life of fruit that looks for all the world like an early 19th-century Raphaelle Peale painting.
Joaquin Trujillo’s Jacky, a dolled up “infanta,” is an empty room lacking any trappings of a royal portrait.
Eventually, after paying homage to other art forms, photographers carved their own niche. In the last galleries, Rohrbach mounts the work of contemporary artists who are celebrated for their color photography: Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano, Carrie Mae Weems and Robert Glenn Ketchum, among others, and then moves on to the digital creations.
One of the most arresting of these is the show’s opening salvo, a wall-size field of luminous blue that moves from indigo to turquoise. In the upper left-hand corner is a tiny burst of red and yellow. The full color spectrum is here; it is as good as a trumpet fanfare announcing the exhibition.
This piece, Photoshop CS, 300 DPI, RGB square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum,” mousedown y=1416 x=1000, mouseup y=208 x=42, is by Cory Arcangel, and there in the title is the recipe for replication.
Just how far color photographs and color prints have come is apparent in the first-floor gallery, where the Carter has mounted snapshots from museum visitors.
If you have ever wanted a photograph included in a museum exhibition, here is your chance. The Carter is accepting color snapshots, from the mustard-colored faded ones from the 1940s and ’50s to the magenta-hued Polaroids of the ’60s and ’70s, to digital iPhone snaps from yesterday.
Prints no larger than 4 by 6 inches can be submitted at the Carter’s information desk; digital prints can be submitted online. A one-page form must accompany the photograph for return purposes.
Submissions are limited to one image per person. Additional information can be found at www.cartermuseum.org/exhibitions/color-american-photography-transformed.