The battle over color in art photography — and it really was a battle — ended by 1980. During the ’70s, many very good photographers chose to make many very good photographs in color. That those photographers were such a diverse group — William Eggleston and William Christenberry were as different from Jan Groover and Helen Levitt as Joel Sternfeld and Joel Meyerowitz were from Richard Misrach and Stephen Shore — showed how decisively color had outgrown the niches it had previously been restricted to: nature, fashion, photojournalism. It’s now black and white that operates in a niche.
So the Leopold Godowsky, Jr. Color Photography Awards, which are given every four years, might seem anachronistic. (Godowsky was coinventor of the Kodachrome process for color photography, in the 1930s.) In fact, anachronism isn’t an issue, as shown by the namesake show at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. Displaying work by the winner, Louie Palu, and three honorable-mention recipients, Aaron Blum, Alejandro Cartagena, and Bastienne Schmidt, it runs through March 22. This is work that demonstrates how much color can bring to a photograph.
Blum’s “Born and Raised” series attempts to get beyond a view of his native West Virginia as a desolate poverty-stricken place. This is not to deny the desolation and poverty, simply to place it in a larger, more nuanced context. So the smelting plant shown in “Ormet Aluminum” is just that, a smelting plant, and its riverside location may recall the recent chemical spill in the state. But Blum has shot the plant during magic hour, the term cinematographers use for the period shortly after sunrise or before sunset when light imparts a special glow. The magical capacities of black and white are myriad, but capturing magic hour does not number among them.
Color, while not central to Schmidt’s series “Home Stills,” enhances it considerably. The series is two parts Cindy Sherman (Schmidt poses in various tableaux as a sort of meta-housewife) to one part Virginia Woolf (the settings of the tableaux are domesticated versions of Woolf’s “room of one’s own”). Schmidt shoots herself with her back to the camera or otherwise unrevealed — behind a scrim, looking down at her feet, and so on — the idea being to emphasize her role as type rather than individual. If it all sounds slightly arch, it is — except for the vitality and exuberance that Schmidt’s use of color brings to a number of the images. The vibrancy of contrast between carmine garment and dull gray rocks in “The Red Dress, Sagaponack” is transporting.
The conceit behind Cartagena’s “The Car Poolers” is so much simpler, and more effective, than Schmidt’s. Cartagena, who is Mexican, positioned himself on an overpass outside of the prosperous city of San Pedro Garza Garcia. He photographed pickup trucks on the morning commute into San Pedro. His focus was the truck beds (remember, seen from above) and the workers riding in them. Some men slept. Some read. Some were so packed together as not to be able to do much of anything. Most either ignored or didn’t notice Cartagena and his camera. In one photograph, two men grin up at him, and it’s a marvel of cheery good will. A quick look at the wall displaying eight of Cartagena’s nine photographs suggests it’s conceptual art — the similarity and repetition. But the presence of color reveals a multitude of differences in detail, starting with the color of the trucks. Aesthetic and social concerns braid together so as to become one.
Palu took his photographs in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province between 2007 and 2010. “My ultimate goal,” he writes, “was to create a body of work which expressed the humanity and inhumanity of war.” Admirable as that aim is, it’s a recipe for self-defeat. Vagueness is no photographer’s friend. Particularity is. Particularity plays no small part in the success of Palu’s images — and color plays no small part in that particularity. The blood speckling the floor of a front-line trauma station would be an abstraction seen in black and white. The henna coloring the hands of an Afghan soldier in another photograph is an unnerving metaphor for blood. In black and white, it would seem like a tonal oddity. There are a number of oddities in Palu’s images — what are two loaves of flat bread and a clip of bullets doing next to that Christmas tree? Is it common practice for a flute to be played by an Afghan soldier while comrades peel potatoes? — but their presence is intentional. Palu’s in control of them. Control is another thing color contributes. Maybe it’s the biggest contribution of all.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.