Essays On Color

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The woman is sitting on and against cushions printed with a riotous pattern of yellow and orange and green flowers; her dress is another bold floral print, in magenta, blue, and red; above her head is a pattern of sun-dappled green leaves seen through the grid of a white lattice; and, finally, at her feet is yet another pattern, of dead leaves on flagstone.

In black and white, these patterns—and, so to speak, the woman, the chaise, the leaves, the flagstone—would cease to exist.

Image: Eggleston Artist Trust My copy of Diana and Nikon proves Malcolm’s point; the book is not in color.

So, I’ve seen the shot in black and white and the various colors and patterns do indeed merge into an indecipherable mass. You wouldn’t look at the picture twice in black and white. In color, “an atmosphere of romantic melancholy wafts out of [the] commonplace subject matter.” Colors, according to Malcolm, compliment and add “atmosphere” to what she calls the “commonplace subject matter” of Eggleston’s photography.

It is said that the great Luxembourgish-American photographer Edward Steichen once took a thousand pictures of the same white teacup.

This was in the days before digital photography, mind you, so the commitment of time and expense was considerable.You might have a box of such pictures in your own basement somewhere.How, then, is a fine art photographer shooting in the vernacular style to distinguish her work from just another snapshot?She realized that, in Eggleston’s photographs, she was being confronted with genuine art, though art that seemed to come from a photographic sensibility distinctly different from that of Steichen or Stieglitz or any of the other great photographic Modernists. Not that Eggleston’s aesthetic sensibility rose up .Eggleston (Malcolm and others argued) belongs in the ‘vernacular’ tradition of photography, a tradition developed by people like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.Look, for instance, at Walker Evans’ photo of a gas station: Or Dorothea Lange’s picture of men sitting on a bench in Depression-era San Francisco: This American vernacular style continued into the 1960s ‘street photography’ of photographers like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.Janet Malcolm calls this “Photo-Realism.” She writes in her “Color” essay that Eggleston takes us deep into Photo-Realist country and that such country “is defined by the presence of recently made structures, machines, and objects; by people dressed in clothes of the cheap, synthetic, democratic sort; by the signs and the leavings of fast food, fast gas, fast obsolescence; by the inclusion of the very parts of the landscape that photographers used to try to eliminate, edging the bridal couple away from the parked cars, angling the lens to exclude the Laundromat sign encroaching on the quiet tree-lined street.” Working within this Photo-Realist tradition, Eggleston’s special contribution was his decision to abandon black and white and shoot his photos in color. If you look at the street shot of a pregnant woman hailing a cab by Garry Winogrand, you’ll notice that there is very little to distinguish the picture from any number of snapshots taken by any number of amateur photographers.Keeping to black and white, especially after the emergence of cheap color photography for the masses, was one approach to this problem.The most serious art photographers always shot their pictures in black and white and generally paid close attention to matters of composition, framing and contrasts between light and dark. Shooting in color, as an art photographer, was therefore a potentially dangerous muddying of the waters, a blurring of the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow photography.It is 1976 and John Szarkowski (the incredibly influential Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991) exhibits the photographs of a man named William Eggleston.The show includes a shot (titled, simply, ‘Algiers, Louisiana’) of an aging dog lapping up water from a brown puddle in front of a parked car and a suburban home.


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