NEW YORK — It wasn’t that long ago that color didn’t qualify as serious photography. There were reasons for this. Color film was often chemically unreliable. When it wasn’t, color reproduction was so expensive it was mostly restricted to advertising, fashion, and the glossier precincts of photojournalism. This meant that color, fairly or not, was considered commercial, superficial, or both. Eliot Porter got a pass, because he did nature photography (“Eliot Porter’s Nature” opens Dec. 22 at the Portland Museum of Art), but he was pretty much it.
Color is now nearly as common in serious photography as it is in the world. Black and white? It’s as retro, and stylized, as analog (also as cool). So with color-saturated eyes, it’s difficult to appreciate the novelty of “Stephen Shore,” which runs at the Museum of Modern Art through May 28, and “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs,” which runs at the Met Breuer through Jan. 2. Yet at a time when color was rare and suspect, both men were showing how effective and vital it could be.
Shore, who turned 70 last month, was one of a small group of photographers, most of them young, who in the ’70s made art photography safe for color: William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Joel Sternfeld, Jan Groover, Richard Misrach, William Christenberry, Helen Levitt.
It’s hard to think of a living photographer who’s had a more varied and interesting career than Shore has — or a career that got off to such an early start. He developed his first negative when he was 6. He sold three prints to MoMA when he was 14. Soon thereafter he was serving as a kind of court photographer to Andy Warhol at the Factory. The extensive selection of those photos in the show — all in black and white — are riveting. Andy smiles. Lou Reed looks so young. Hey, there’s Marcel Duchamp. What did he think of Edie Sedgwick?
At 24, Shore became only the second living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His work began to flirt with Conceptualism, emphasizing repetition and variation. One of the more memorable footnotes to 20th-century art history is Shore’s having his images printed up as postcards and sticking them in drugstore and souvenir racks. That was taking Pop to places even Andy hadn’t imagined.
Shore took his first color photograph in 1961, but the decisive shift came with the work that would be published in his book “Uncommon Places” (1982). He criss-crossed the country in the early ’70s, adding his name to the illustrious list of photographic road trippers. With his view camera (part of the variedness of Shore’s career is the wide range of cameras he’s used), he photographed storefronts and gas stations and billboards. The deadpan comedy of “U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973” takes the longstanding tradition of American landscape photography — and the newly arrived one of media photography — to places neither had previously been. As for “Amarillo, Texas, July 1972,” with its red-bordered milk carton on a preposterously red background, it’s like a manifesto for the use of color.
Shore began to teach in the early ’80s, at Bard College. This led to his primer “The Nature of Photographs,” as insightful and thorough an introduction as the medium has. He started publishing artist books of his photographs in editions of 20. That’s how many of them hang from the ceiling in one of the galleries. They’re like an installation of literary angels. Shore took up Instagram in 2014. “Andy Warhol would have loved it,” he says. Surely he’s right about that. As of earlier this month, he had just under 1,200 posts, with 103,000 followers. And all that leaves unmentioned photographic projects in Scotland, Texas, Italy (a return to black and white), Israel, and Ukraine. They all figure in this wonderfully comprehensive retrospective. “Paying attention all the time is a very interesting way to go through a day,” Shore has said. He sure makes it interesting for the rest of us, too.
Raghubir Singh (1942-1999) came to photography via photojournalism — where the use of color, especially when the images were of a place as exotic to Western media outlets as his native India, wasn’t just acceptable but expected. One of Singh’s inspirations was Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images of India.
Cartier-Bresson is celebrated as the master of “the decisive instant,” and it’s hard to top the decisiveness of the instantaneity in “Man Diving, Ganges Floods, Benares, Uttar Pradesh,” from 1985. Like Cartier-Bresson, Singh very quickly came to employ photojournalism as a launching pad to reach visual realms far beyond what editors would have expected. He loved contrast (social and visual both), the play of planes within the frame, and creating the illusion of depth. A photograph like “Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal,” from 1991, is part puzzle, part documentation — and all tour de force.
For Singh, a photograph was less recording of reality than window on life — a specifically Indian life. Unlike Shore and his fellow New Color Photographers in America in the ’70s, he saw color as not just an aesthetic choice but a cultural necessity. “The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt, linked to death — from which black is inseparable,” he wrote in 1998. “The fundamental condition of India, however, is the cycle of rebirth, in which colour is not just an essential element but also a deep inner source, reaching into the subcontinent’s long and rich past.” Color was the future, and now present, of photography. For Singh, it was history, too.
At Museum of Modern Art, 18 W. 54th St. (the usual entrance, at 11 W. 53rd St., is closed during renovations), New York, through May 28. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org
MODERNISM ON THE GANGES: Raghubir Singh Photographs
At Met Breuer, 945 Madison Ave., New York, through Jan. 2. 212-731-1675, www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-breuerMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.