June 7: Was there colour before color?
The William Eggleston exhibition continues until 18 June at the National Gallery of Victoria during their Festival of Photography.
Eggleston (*1939) is billed in the NGV literature as “one of the most important photographic artists of the twentieth century…an ongoing influence for subsequent generations of photographers and artists. He is best known for his pioneering use of colour…”
There’s plenty of hype in those statements. Yes, this is the first time any of his portrait images have been shown in Australia, and certainly colour is very significant in them, but not in the manner claimed for him as a ‘pioneer’ of colour, but rather as a recorder of race relations in the American South.
That may be to claim for Eggleston a documentary purpose that he rejected;
I don’t have a burning desire to go out and document anything. It just happens when it happens. It’s not a conscious effort, nor is it a struggle.
…(though Eggleston admired Henri Cartier-Bresson, who once told him: “William, colour is bullshit.”).
A native Southerner, he grew up between his hometown of Memphis and his grandparents’ Mississippi cotton plantation and once lightheartedly claimed that his centralised compositions were based on the Confederate flag.
So, did he observe the racism at work amongst the interactions of the people in these two photographs; the black woman passing the older, smaller white man in the street who so clearly asserts his right to walk right ahead while she skirts out into the gutter to give him room? Did he see his portrait of his uncle dressed in black and his driver dressed in a white jacket and mirroring his boss’s slouch as a commentary on race relations? Is there any statement by Eggleston that would indicate that segregation was anything more than just an accepted, incidental part of life, barely visible to him?
Only last year on October 17, Augusten Burroughs of the The New York Times Style Magazine published an article William Eggleston, the Pioneer of Color Photography, yet in fact we’d have none of Eggleston’s colour had it not been for William Christenberry‘s use of the Kodak Brownie snapshot camera for his three-inch-square colour pictures of the Southern regional architecture and artifacts in his native Hale County, Alabama, intended as reference for his paintings.
By 1962 Christenberry had moved to Memphis and there met a young local photographer named William Eggleston and invited him to his studio, where a series of his color Brownie snapshots had been tacked to the wall. Walter Hopps, the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, notes that:
It’s interesting to think that if Evans hadn’t encouraged Christenberry to go back to the South, Eggleston might still be a black-and-white photographer.
To set Eggleston’s record as a ‘pioneer’ straight, it was ten years ago on this date, June 7, in 2007 that Martin Parr launched an exhibition that ran until July 20, 2007 at Hasted Hunt in New York (the gallery folded in August 2015).
Curated by him it was wittily entitled Colour before Color, reminding us, through this simple difference in spelling, of another fundamental divergence between Anglo-European and American perspectives on the history of photography.
He might just as aptly have used the Dutch kleur, the German Kolorit or the Italian colore as Parr invited six European photographers, Italian Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992), Dane Keld Helmer-Petersen (1920-2013), the Britons John Hinde (1916-97) and Peter Mitchell (*1943), Spaniard Carlos Pérez Siquier (*1930) and the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990) to demonstrate that colour photography was being used effectively prior to the ground breaking (and at the time much despised) 1976 exhibition of the ‘color’ photography by William Eggleston at MoMA curated by John Szarkowski.
In his introduction to Colour before Color Parr explained:
The purpose of the current exhibition is to demonstrate that an equally lively colour photography culture in Europe was operating both before and during the 70s. This work had been largely overlooked as it was not put together as a movement, nor was it promoted by high profile institutions.
Practical colour processes had been around for a considerable time in photography. The first colour photograph of a tricolour ribbon taken as long ago as 1861 by Thomas Sutton, was made using the three-colour method proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, so the concept is only twenty years younger than photography itself and 100 years old at the time of Eggleston’s MoMA show.
Louis Ducos du Hauron was making colour photographic prints on paper in 1877. Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky in Russia was producing natural-colour projections from his improvements of panchromatic materials applied to making subtle and accurate tri-colour separations. The Sanger Shepherd process introduced in 1900 yielded colour transparencies and prints and was still being used in 1927.
Other methods entailed using screen plates of various kinds to carry the colour information and they led to the first commercially successful colour process, the French Lumière brothers‘ Autochrome which was marketed in 1907 and, though expensive, was easy to use. Englishman Mervyn O’Gorman made a series of artistic colour photos using Autochrome of his daughter, Christina, taken in 1913.
To his list of Anglo and European pioneers in the application of colour imagery to artistic purpose Parr might also have added Victor Meeussen‘ s sophisticated dye transfer work which he supported with theory on the unique aesthetics of colour photography in articles he was writing in the 1940s.
‘The First Lady’ of colour ‘Madame Yevonde’ (Yevonde Cumbers Middleton) should not be overlooked; she was making colour portraits as early as the 1930s using the commercial Vivex colour print process (later printing her own). Her mythological tableaux are every bit as symbolic and savvy as anything Cindy Sherman was to make as part of the Pictures Generation.
As Parr has stated in several interviews (including one for American Suburb X):
The history of photography always taught us that American photographers such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and their generation pioneered colour photography. So my theory was simply to look at things in Europe and to focus on six European photographers who were also working in colour during the seventies. But because they worked in isolation and had no institutional support, they were largely ignored. So I formulated a counter argument to what is now accepted as received truth.
Of course I am not trivializing the developments in America during the seventies with the MOMA show and William Eggleston’s efforts, but this is not the full story. It’s much more complicated than that.
That there was “colour before color” is still being discovered. In recent years, it has become clear that much of the history of colour art photography in America too, prior to Eggleston, has been overlooked, notably the work of Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas.