Find out what made the New American Color photography so revolutionary
The first significant display of color photography, featuring the works of William Eagleston, was held at The Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Commenting on it, Hilton Kramer of the New York Times wrote, “perfectly boring.” They weren’t impressed!
But the exhibition laid the groundwork for a new style of New American color photography. Its exponents like Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach, and Joel Sternfeld showed others the ingenious use of color. The results were remarkable and continue to be so today. What were some of its features and facts that make for some pretty exciting reading? Read on to know.
What was so different about it?
New American color photographers revolutionized color photography in many ways, and here are some you might find interesting.
The first use of color
It was the first time photographers used color to capture images, significantly departing from the past. They all sought to focus on contemporary life and showcase the suburban landscape.
Scenes from everyday life
William Eagleston, Stephen Shore, John Margolies, and others captured scenes from everyday life. But the difference was the high degree of excellence in them. One look at it, and the mundaneness was replaced by almost surrealism.
For example, something so usual like a parking lot came to have a story of its own. It reflected the social characteristics of The American Dream, representing the opportunities for success, prosperity, and upwards social mobility.
Focus on the visual appeal
It also broke away from the black and white photography of the post-WW1 era. Most photos during that period showcased the rawness of everyday life. The new color movement was largely devoid of these characteristics. Instead, it revolved mainly around visual appeal and aesthetics, masking the political side of the subject as much as possible.
New color photographers took the positive aspects of capitalism like abundance and technological innovation and gave them an artistic touch. They brought life into everyday things, almost making them seem transcendental.
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Who were its leading proponents?
Most photography historians consider Eagleston the “Father of New American Color Photography.” However, he received tremendous help and support from his friend, William Christenberry.
Christenberry himself was somewhat an expert in the use of color images. With his Kodak Brownie Box camera, he captured Alabama’s neglected and dilapidated structures, his home state. Christenberry inspired Eagleston to begin experimenting with color, which he did so from the mid-1960s. Until then, he largely confined his work to black-and-white.
Like Christenberry, he took inspiration from his home state’s cultural and urban landscape, Tennessee. His genius lay in his ability to infuse an extraordinary touch into objects that one associated with everyday life. One of his best-known works is a single lightbulb against a blood-red ceiling. He did it during the 1970s while experimenting with a dye-transfer printing process.
The process gave him complete control over the brightness setting, allowing him to enhance the color saturation, and get the effects he wanted.
Stephen Shore, born in 1947, also played a significant role. Shore advocated the liberal use of colors in the image during the 1970s. He is also instrumental in renewing interest in documentary photography in the 1990s, both in the USA and Europe. A substantial number of his pictures combined the styles of traditional American photographers with influences from Pop, Conceptualism, Photo-Realism, and other artistic movements.
Shore’s aim was to achieve neutrality in the subject matter. However, rather than reducing his work to a specific style, they touch upon various principles like maximum clarity, emphasis on natural light, and minimal reframing.
Other figures like Helen Levitt, Joel Sternfeld, and Martin Parr contributed to the movement in their unique ways while touching on different subjects. New American color photography played a revolutionary role in using colors for images. Something as simple as a parking lot took on a new meaning with the correct shades, brightness, and contrast. From Eagleston to Parr, every artist equally contributed to this movement.