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American Photography Transformed
By John Rohrbach; essay by Sylvie Pénichon

The first book that addresses color in photography from the beginning of the medium to the present, this landmark copublication with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art explores how color transformed photography into today’s dominant artistic form.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

September 2013
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344 pages | 10 x 12 | 78 plates 97 figures in text |

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Capturing the world in color was one of photography’s greatest aspirations from the very beginnings of the medium. When color photography became a reality with the introduction of the Autochrome in 1907, prominent photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz were overjoyed. But they quickly came to reject color photography as too aligned with human sight. It took decades for artists to come to understand the creative potential of color, and only in 1976, when John Szarkowski showed William Eggleston’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, did the art world embrace color. By accepting color’s flexibility and emotional transcendence, Szarkowski and Eggleston transformed photography, giving the medium equal artistic stature with painting, but also initiating its demise as an independent art.

The catalogue of a major exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which holds one of the premier collections of American photography, Color tells, for the first time, the fascinating story of color’s integration into American fine art photography and how its acceptance revolutionized the practice of art. Tracing the development of color photography from the first color photograph in 1851 to digital photography, John Rohrbach describes photographers’ initial rejection of color, their decades-long debates over what color brings to photography, and how their gradual acceptance of color released photography from its status as a second-tier art form. He shows how this absorption of color instigated wide acceptance of a fundamentally new definition of photography, one that blends photography’s documentary foundations with the creative flexibility of painting. Sylvie Pénichon offers a succinct survey of the technological advances that made color in photography a reality and have since marked its multifaceted development. These texts, illuminated by seventy-five full-page plates and more than eighty illustrations, make this book a groundbreaking contribution to photographic studies.




Chapter One: Inventing Color Photography

Chapter Two: Defining Color, 1936–1970

Chapter Three: Using Color, 1970–1990

Chapter Four: Interrogating Color, 1990–2010
By John Rohrbach

From Potatoes to Pixels: A Short Technical History of Color Photography
By Sylvie Pénichon

List of Plates






 Color photography is an accomplished fact. The seemingly everlasting question whether color would ever be within the reach of the photographer has been definitely answered.
—Alfred Stieglitz, 1907

New Yorker Alfred Stieglitz had been lobbying hard for recognition of photography's artistic equality with painting through the decade leading up to the introduction of the Autochrome, the first commercially successful color photographic process, in 1907. He had been arguing through examples of his own photographs, and those by others he deemed worthy, that sensitively constructed, framed, and printed photographs relayed just as much emotion and beauty as works in any other artistic medium. If the lack of photographic color undercut his arguments, its introduction now offered the potential of beating painting at its own game--of reflecting life more vividly and quickly, with just as much fulfillment--at least at first blush. Stieglitz immediately called the Autochrome "another dream come true," and he and his colleagues set out with great enthusiasm to master the process. But their excitement would not last. Almost immediately, it became apparent that photographic color delivered a world that was simultaneously too real and not real enough. Discerning eyes found a surreal brittleness in the spot-on renderings delivered by most well-exposed color photographs, as if the air had just been sucked out of their subjects. They recognized that photographic colors would pull forward or recede, not fully adhering to the objects they described, especially if the colors were slightly off in hue or saturation. And if they were off a little more, they would simply look wrong. Additionally, color photographs exaggerated the color shifts of light as it changed over the course of a day; they inflated the reflection of color across forms; and they generally presented blocked-up shadows rather than project the deep-toned luminescence that made black-and-white photographs so appealing. In short, photographic color danced to its own peculiar rhythms. Add to this the higher expense of color materials, and it becomes easy to understand why Stieglitz and many of his closest associates turned their backs on the medium within a short period.

This book relates the story of artists' decades-long coming to terms with color photography, including their debates over how to, and even whether to, integrate color into their practices, their initial explorations of it, and their gradual embrace of it as a flexible tool for communicating their visions. The book reveals that this absorption of color instigated wide acceptance of a fundamentally new definition of photography, one that openly blends photography's documentary foundations with the creative flexibility of painting. In this shift, the book suggests, photography finally, once and for all, was delivered from its second-class artistic status. It also was repositioned to become today's dominant artistic form.

Color focuses on the United States, but it is by no means a comprehensive survey of American artists' use of color photography. It does not mention many important artists who have used the medium, and it only cursorily discusses many others. It covers technical advances, most directly in Sylvie Pénichon's discussion. Several recent books provide such broad discussions. Pamela Roberts's A Century of Colour Photography: From the Autochrome to the Digital Age (2007) and Nathelie Boulouch's Le ciel est bleu (2011) summarize the full history of color photography, integrating color use in Europe, America, and beyond. Kevin Moore's important book Starburst: Color Photography in America, 1970–1980 (2010)effectively synopsizes artists' explorations of color photography over the years surrounding John Szarkowski's influential mid-1976 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) of Memphis photographer William Eggleston's snapshot-inflected color photographs. Numerous other recent books delineate the use of color by specific artists, from Ansel Adams to Alex Webb. This book's bibliography points to many of these studies.

By focusing on what color brings to photography rather than on either the technical achievement of color photography or artist biography, this book shifts the conversation to the liaison between photography and human sight, to the connections between color and black-and-white photography, and to photography's bond with the other arts, particularly to painting. This book finds its roots in the core achievement and challenge of photographs: that we so quickly accept their optical mechanics as reflecting the world. If black-and-white photographs deliver unparalleled detail, color photographs convey immediacy, at least when their hues approximate what we expect to see. This visceral connection to sight is what makes photographs so beguiling and useful, of course. It also explains why there was such consternation that the first photographs did not deliver color and why color immediately became the medium's holy grail--its last step to perfection.

However much we know that human sight has always conveyed the world's colors, our photographically driven memories suggest that the nineteenth century was essentially brown and that the first half of the twentieth century was largely gray, as Calvin's dad discusses in Bill Watterson's marvelous Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. When color did arrive, our memories tell us that the world became garish, projecting screaming reds and blues so solid that clear skies seem to jump forward as solid geometrical facets. Although we accept those saturated worlds as good enough, the hues all too often have faded, taking on casts of pale magenta or cyan. In response, we have taught ourselves that good color marks the here and now, while bad color, or no color at all, means looking into the past. These memories have taught us to think of color photography as a recent phenomenon. This book reveals that color photographs were produced in 1851--not very good ones, but ones that truly and directly rendered the world's colors. Chapter 1 tells the engaging tale of the great stir they induced. It is a story filled with enough exaggerated hope, promise, and confrontation to suggest a Hollywood melodrama. The chapter then relates the decades-long, nationalist-tinged race to produce a commercially viable system for making color photographs that led up to the introduction of the Autochrome in 1907, a story of great expectation mixed with skepticism, of intermittent joys and subsequent frustrations. The Autochrome's introduction is where the heart of the book's tale takes hold. Technical issues certainly played a role in the quick rejection of color by Stieglitz and his colleagues. Autochromes are one-of-a-kind photographs on glass plates. They are difficult to display, they do not translate well in print form, and their dyes fade when left for extended periods in bright light. Yet Stieglitz quit using the process not for these reasons but because color changed his conception of photography in ways that he neither expected nor was ready to explore.

Color brought photography into closer alignment with human sight and yet paradoxically away from the medium's descriptive roots. Chapter 2 examines this quandary, relating photographic artists' extended struggle to understand what color delivered and sharing their at times vociferous arguments over how to think about and use photographic color. For much of this time artists and critics alike focused on the dichotomy of close description versus abstraction. For many of them, straight depiction of the world undercut one of the key tenets of what made photographs artful; personal interpretation and abstraction seemed merely to project ideas already addressed in more fulfilling fashion through painting. Yet, in the face of these problems, the allure of color remained unabated. More photographers were taking it up each year, often with great finesse and creative expertise. Unfortunately, until photographers could figure out how to integrate color into black-and-white trends, color photography stubbornly remained a secondary tool, acceptable mainly for commercial work and hobby play. On those rare occasions when it gained respect, as in the work of Eliot Porter and Marie Cosindas, that support was begrudging and the work was framed as an offshoot of the main course of art-photographic practice.

Still, by the early 1970s, Chapter 3 explains, the use of color photography was becoming so pervasive among amateurs and young artists that critics started realizing that it would be only a matter of time before the medium would gain wide museum acceptance. The question now became under what terms color would find that critical embrace. The answer came quickly in the form of Szarkowski's presentation of Eggleston's color photographs at MoMA. That exhibition has come to be so universally viewed by historians as the marker of color photography's artistic and critical acceptance that it is difficult to remember how controversial it was. Szarkowski's designation of Eggleston's snapshot-like color photographs as "perfect" created an uproar. His images were not traditionally beautiful. Nor were they visually challenging in subject or composition, at least at first glance. But the very existence of the show made it clear that color had finally gained a place within the artistic pantheon, and that straightforward looking at the world was the accepted path. Yet this chapter makes clear that even Szarkowski did not fully understand Eggleston's achievement. By embracing color photography that was naturalistic yet forceful, where color competed with subject for attention, he inadvertently set in play the demise of photography in the traditional sense. When, later that decade, the fine art photography world absorbed semiotic appreciations of cultural meaning, the transition was completed. Eggleston's acceptance of color's active unpredictability, in tandem with semiotics, transformed photography from a tool for describing the world into an opportunity to blend description with cultural assertion; in other words, it became a means for shaping new worlds. This shift fundamentally undercut photographers' and critics' longstanding location of photography's core in its unique ability to record light and physical detail with unparalleled exactitude. While we generally think of color as bringing added truth and immediacy to this foundational core, color photography actually freed the medium from its subservience to verisimilitude. Visceral connection to the world remains today the key to photography's graphic power, but now imaginative creation is equally important. The last part of Chapter 3 traces this momentous shift as it cut away the boundaries between photography and the other arts, bringing new artists into the field who had little interest in photography's traditions and who were more interested in using the medium not to record the world but to reflect ideas about the world.

By the early 1990s, color had become so absorbed into fine art photography that use of color materials was no longer a point of critical discussion; it was now taken for granted. This is too bad, because photographers were applying color in active ways. Chapter 4 relates the main line of this ongoing conversation. Now photographs were not merely competing with paintings for wall presence; photographers were conversing with painting--using the camera to question the semantics of color description and our expectations of the colors of things. They also were choosing colors in direct reference to the vocabulary of painting and installation art, Rembrandt's browns, Holbein's greens, and the color-fields of James Turrell. New digital technologies only enhanced these explorations. The easy erasure of the boundary between reality and fiction afforded by this technological change induced artists using the camera to embrace the longstanding notion that art is inherently theater. That embrace released photography from its artistic ghetto. Transforming photography from record to creation rooted in record saved the medium from itself, making it, at last, a full equal with painting. Color, this book argues, was essential to this transformation.

Yet all is still not resolved. The rapid shift from film to chip has recently caused a range of artists to look hard at the tools of their trade. As screens increasingly become the final presentation mode, some photographers are bringing explicit new attention to the physicality of the photographic print--not only the mutuality of light and white paper, but also the patterns created by the layers of color in film and printing papers. Some have even been taking note of the hues beyond photography’s purview. Although these shifts have incited critics and historians to call into question the very viability of photography, this text concludes that this change is merely another transition for this peculiar and beguiling image-making form.



“This [book] makes an important contribution to the fields of photohistory and cultural history. . . . You really get a sense of key players in the field: who had influence, how they exerted it, and what their agenda was (even if the agenda changed over time.) There is even a degree of suspense as the history unfolds.”
Britt Salvesen, Curator and Head of the Photography Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“Rohrbach has uncovered, through interviews and secondary sources, a great deal that has not been stated in print before . . . a superior work.”
Arthur Ollman, San Diego State University, Founding Director of the Museum of Photographic Arts