“Starburst: Color Photography In America 1970–1980″

Black and white photography is such a relic of another age that it is hard to imagine, as recently as the 1970s, the art world’s hostility to color. William Eggleston’s Color Photographs, for example, the first one-man show of color work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, was considered the worst exhibit of the year. Hilton Kramer repudiated John Szarkowski, the museum’s curator of photography, for throwing caution to the wind when he spoke of Eggleston’s work as “perfect.” “Perfect?” Kramer wrote in The New York Times. “Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” Of course Eggleston would become one of the most influential photographers of the era.

On view through September 26, 2010, at Princeton Art Museum, “Starburst, the first-ever museum survey of the “New Color Photography” in the 1970s, stars 18 artists who fast-forwarded their medium out of its black-and-white past and put it at the center of contemporary art.

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The exhibition features generous bodies of work by eighteen artists, from the still-prominent, such as Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Jan Groover, and Joel Sternfeld, to key figures of the period, including Eve Sonneman, Neal Slavin, John Pfahl, and Barbara Kasten.”

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In the early 1970s, Shore set out to make pictures across America. Two elements distinguish his work with a view camera from Evans’ in the 1930s and Robert Frank’s in the 1950s: One is technical—the use of color as a descriptive element; his chromogenic prints were more nuanced than those produced by commercial laboratories and his use of color was truer to what things actually looked like.

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The other element is perceptual—a kind of stoned contemplation, if you will, that could have emerged only from the 1960s and that typifies so much of Shore’s work. He used the view camera in a state of heightened awareness that might be likened to the ”expanded consciousness” of the age of Aquarius. In the parlance of the day, he achieved the photographic equivalent of ”grokking” his subjects.

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By the 1980s, color had become an integral part of the photographic vocabulary, from Nan Goldin’s personal chronicle of the downtown Manhattan demimonde, to the staged spontaneity in images of domestic life by Philip-Lorca di Corcia, Tina Barney and Larry Sultan. Jeff Wall grew the size of the photographic print in images that reference 18th-century tableaux in painting. And in the 1990s, Gregory Crewdson constructed wall-size tableaux that reference the cinematic image.

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Today, color is no longer the point of photographic investigation as it was in the 1970s, when fluency in this new visual language was still tentative. Color is now a native visual language. Perhaps that is what the nostalgia for vintage black and white photography is all about.

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