Coloring our world, from cave paintings to today
“When color is at its richest,” Cézanne said, “form is at its fullest.” He knew something about both subjects. The photographer Joel Meyerowitz does, too. Color, he has said, “describes more things.”
It’s as simple as that — and as complicated. Color in art is as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux. Yet as an element in media as diverse as film, television, and photography, you can measure its ubiquity and preeminence in decades.
Reproduction was a matter of gray or black-and-white — until, almost instantly (in Lascaux terms), it wasn’t. That transformation was partly a matter of technology. It was just as much a matter of assumptions and attitudes. Two new books summon up that shift in photography. Another reminds us of the many centuries, materials, and methods for using color in traditional visual art.
Always a thing of wonder, color can be as basic as rocks (ground up for pigment) or bovine urine — more specifically, urine from cows or buffaloes that have been fed exclusively on mango leaves. Said fluid is the source of a pigment known as Indian yellow. Indian yellow is one of some 3,000 pigments in the Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection. The collection is the subject of “An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour” (Atelier Editions).
Harvard has placed the collection on the building’s fourth floor. Not open to the public, it can be glimpsed from across the building’s atrium. The tubes, flasks, phials, and bottles containing the pigments are stored in floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets. One can imagine Mark Dion’s mouth watering at the thought of it as an art installation. The visual effect is of an alchemist’s workshop masquerading as an apothecary, a Pantone showroom by way of Hogwarts, God’s own Crayola box.
The magic is verbal as well as visual. Names like toluidine toner, byaku gunjo, madder lake, maple soot, and dragon’s blood (speaking of Hogwarts) are as beautiful as the pigments that bear them. Many of their stories are no less remarkable. Mummy brown came from actual Egyptian mummies.
Ultramarine (made from ground-up lapis lazuli) was as costly as gold — until a synthetic version was developed, in the early 19th century. The pigments are variously derived from plants, minerals, animals, insects, and, like synthetic ultramarine, from nothing more magical than chemistry experiments. But isn’t that a different kind of magic?
Chemistry is at the heart of photography, and the complexity it posed for color reproduction was the main reason the medium stayed so long black-and-white. The most common form of color image throughout the middle third of the last century was the Kodachrome transparency. The finished product — from shutter click to placement in a slide carousel — required 28 discrete processing steps.
The first color photograph dates to 1861, a collaboration between a photographer named Thomas Sutton and no less a figure than the physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Four decades later, the Lumière brothers, the motion-picture pioneers, invented a color-photographic process, the autochrome. More processes followed, but color film did not attract serious photographers. There were exceptions: Eliot Porter, Paul Outerbridge, Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas. But color was chromatically dodgy (Leiter quite cannily made that an element in his photographs), and prints tended to be unstable.
People taking family photos didn’t mind. Nor did the high-end users — in advertising, fashion, glossy journalism — who could devote the time and money required to overcome those defects. This meant color was seen as simultaneously amateurish and commercial. Worse, it was considered phony. In 1962, the Museum of Modern Art’s John Szarkowski could write, “The color in color photography has often seemed an irrelevant decorative screen between the viewer and the fact of the picture.” Soon enough, though, he changed his mind.
The clearest evidence of that change — and the watershed event in the acceptance of color — was a 1976 MoMA exhibition organized by Szarkowski, “Photographs by William Eggleston.” All 75 images were in color. The New York Times called it “the most hated show of the year.” Heading the haters was the Times’s chief art critic, Hilton Kramer. Eggleston’s photographs were full of “dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest.” More than a year after the show had closed, Janet Malcolm was still complaining. Eggleston’s photographs, she wrote in The New Yorker, “looked inartistic, unmodern, out of place in an art museum.”
Openness to color in serious photography had begun in the ’60s. Partly, it was the result of technical improvements. Color film got faster, cheaper, more reliable. Partly, it reflected the culture at large. Walt Disney never needed a weatherman to know which way the color wheel was turning. He changed the name of his television series “Walt Disney Presents” to “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” in 1961. Tom Wolfe published his ode to Southern California car customers, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” in Esquire in 1963. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stopped giving an Oscar for black-and-white cinematography in 1966. Carnaby Street and the Summer of Love (psychedelia!) are as unthinkable in black-and-white as film noir is in color.
During the ’70s, several older photographers made the switch to color: Helen Levitt, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans (smitten with the Polaroid SX-70). More significant, younger photographers decisively took it up: Marie Cosindas and Joel Meyerowitz, in the ’60s, followed in the ’70s by Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach, William Christenberry, Joel Sternfeld, Jan Groover, and Eggleston. At decade’s end, no less of a traditionalist than Ansel Adams was calling color photography “one of the major expressions of our time.”
“Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective” (Laurence King Publishing) offers a revealing look at the transition. By 1965, Meyerowitz had begun carrying two cameras: one loaded with color film, the other with black-and-white. He’d started out as a street photographer, a form of photography understood to be as intrinsically black and white as a checkerboard is — and checkers players don’t have to worry about exposures and film speeds. But what’s intrinsic is, by definition, limited. “What I saw,” Meyerowitz recalls, “was that the color image had more information in it, simple as that! There was much more to see and consider, whereas black and white reduced the world to shades of gray.”
Meyerowitz, who’s long had a house in Provincetown, truly arrived as a color photographer when he arrived on Cape Cod, in 1976. The hues and shades captured in “Cape Light” (1978) are at once delicate and ravishing. And it’s not just in that book. The chromatic interplay between water and sky brings out something special in Meyerowitz, as in his view of a seaside swimming pool, in “Florida” (1978), or “Bay/Sky, Provincetown, Massachusetts” (1987).
“The outcome of many summers of working on the bay looks, in some simple way,” he writes, “like a set of paint chips one sees in the hardware store, all made in almost the exact same spot over time but yielding a range of tones that describe a surprisingly rich spectrum, given the simplicity and constancy of the properties of the place.”
The book includes a selection of compare-and-contrast images that Meyerowitz shot in color and black-and-white during his ’60s transition. In every case, the color photograph is fuller — describing more things, as Meyerowitz would say. But they’re not always the more successful. What’s fuller can also be more distracting. The look of life is color. But the look of art can often be arrangement and visual structure — geometry. Black-and-white remains hard to beat at that. Cold can convey realities that warmth can’t.
A classic instance is Lewis Baltz’s series “The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California,” published in 1974. Much of it appears in last year’s retrospective volume “Lewis Baltz” (Steidl). The ’70s weren’t all about color, and part of the fascination of the series is how much color would have violated Baltz’s vision. The companies that occupy the buildings Baltz photographed — R-ohm, Raad, PlastX, Semicoa, Pertec — bear unreal names for barely real institutions within all-too-real structures. “Look at that,” Baltz said of one of the images in the book, “you don’t know whether they’re manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath.” Characterlessness and detachment are crucial to the effect Baltz was after, and color would have undercut that. In a weird way, they offer a kind of anti-color. Baltz’s renderings of these facades — in their geometric shaping, their flatness, their Southern California provenance — are like blanched, drained, shamed versions of those post-Matissean marvels of color, Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings.
More than a rejection of color, Baltz’s ’70s work verges on a denunciation of it. If ever a photographer would seem bathed in the blood of black-and-white it was Baltz. Yet by the end of the ’80s, he, too, was shooting in color, as he would for the rest of his career (he died in 2014). The surprise wasn’t just that Baltz’s natural affinity lay with black-and-white, with its bias toward contrast and form at the expense of emotion and texture. It was that he’d inveighed against color as recently as 1985. “The Rush to Color” in the ’70s, Baltz wrote, led to a “flood of ingratiating rubbish” that “cast a treacly pall” over American photography. He did exempt Eggleston and Shore, “photographers of exceptional talent and integrity,” who “shared a commitment to the use of color as a descriptive, as opposed to decorative, element in their photographs.”
Definitional, a far stronger word, applies that much better to Eggleston’s work. Color isn’t on the surface. It’s as much a property of composition as angle and depth. Smitten with the example of Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston started out in the early ’60s taking black-and-white photographs. Soon enough he moved beyond the decisive instant to the pursuit of a cumulative duration, one that color, so much looser and more extroverted than black-and-white, didn’t just encourage but enable. In 1989, Eudora Welty described an Eggleston photograph of a peony as being “as good as a visit.” That sense of location in a particular somewhere, and being in no particular hurry to get away, fills his work.
Color for Eggleston is as much a matter of feeling as seeing. That mutual reinforcement is very Southern. Eggleston rejects any designation as regionalist, as he should. “People down here get carried away by romanticizing the place,” he’s complained; and Dixie romance his photographs do not provide. He’s photographed in Paris, Berlin, Africa, the American Southwest — and Welty’s peony was on Boston Common. But those are places he goes to and returns from. Eggleston, who turns 80 next year, has lived nearly his entire life in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. The South — its look, its laziness, its lush eccentricity — deeply informs the work. It’s a mark of just how deeply that only twice has he directly addressed the region as such. He provided some uncharacteristically self-conscious photographs for a 1990 book by Willie Morris, “Faulkner’s Mississippi.” Far more successful, and only now widely available, is “Election Eve” (Steidl).
That election was the one in 1976 that saw Jimmy Carter become the first Southerner elected president since before the Civil War. Rolling Stone commissioned Eggleston to take photographs of Sumter County, Ga., in the waning days of the campaign. Sumter County, about 130 miles due south of Atlanta, is where Carter had grown up and long made his home. It was an inspired assignment, right down to piggybacking on the recent uproar over the MoMA show. But the photographs never ran. Why? Alas, the index of Joe Hagan’s recent Jann Wenner biography does not include “Eggleston, William.” The Corcoran Gallery of American Art, in Washington, D.C., exhibited the photographs in late 1977 and early ’78, and Eggleston published them as an artist’s book (which Baltz singled out for praise in that 1985 essay). The Steidl volume exactingly reprints the artist book’s 100 photographs.
Eggleston begins with trees and farm fields. This version of pastoralism doesn’t last. Vegetation remains thick, but now there are also gas pumps, late-model sedans, gravestones, weather-beaten old houses that are too big for shacks but dilapidated enough to come close. The iron-rich rustiness of what looks to be an abandoned dump truck is a sight to savor, as is that of a comparably distressed pickup. There’s nothing antiquarian about these vehicles. Eggleston presents decay as perfectly natural. It’s kinetic, a version of performance: a flaring up, not a settling in. You can’t have rust without oxygen — or oxygen without rust. You also can’t appreciate it in black-and-white.
“Election Eve” offers human handiwork in abundance, but actual humans appear only occasionally. Their rarity reminds us how rural Sumter County is — and, by extension, so much of the South. Those 130 miles to Atlanta are a long 130 miles. The people we do see are anomalies. A double-knit trouser leg (remember, this is 1976) stands next to a derelict coffee can on an even more derelict floor. An old black man crosses a street. He’s one of the few reminders of race. Another is all the more telling for being so oblique. A house in Americus, Ga., has a plantation-style portico, with Corinthian columns. It’s the single most shocking image in the book. Oh, yes, that South. Eggleston shoots it in such a way as to downplay any of that romanticizing he so dislikes. A lot more typical are the seven churches presented consecutively at the end of the book.
Only one of the photographs in “Election Eve” directly harkens to politics. In the lower-right-hand-corner appears a “Let’s Elect Jimmy Carter President” bumper sticker. It’s on a Chrysler in a Plains parking lot. The surrounding emptiness — the sky, the surface of the lot, a featureless brick wall — overwhelms the words. Such a sense of vacancy is typical of the images in “Election Eve” and Eggleston’s work generally. With Eggleston, the vacancy offers reassurance; there’s never confusion within the frame. Vacancy conveys lack of hurry, lack of pressure, lack of confinement — but not too much lack of confinement. Eggleston photographs flirt with slackness but never embrace it.
From a different perspective, all of the pictures — there are 13 of Mississippi, one of Memphis, and the rest are of Georgia — relate to the campaign. They so clearly show a region deeply different from the rest of the country, and it was a pride in that deep difference that won Carter the White House. Every single Southern state, except Virginia, voted for him. Contrast that with 2016: Every single Southern state — again, except for Virginia — voted for Donald Trump. Carter’s victory was different from the old Solid South, in which an all-white electorate always voted Democratic. Civil rights had already shattered that tradition. Carter brought together a very different, bi-racial Democratic majority, and that there-ness permeates “Election Eve.” It also reminds us, however inadvertently, of another aspect of color. The battle over color in photography during the ’70s looks awfully tame compared to the battle now between blue and red on the electoral map.