The revolution in color photography.

The big picture.
Feb. 10 2003 12:38 PM

Kodachrome Moment

How William Eggleston's revolutionary exhibition changed everything.

Click here  to see a slide show of the artist's photographs.

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Late last year a revolution was commemorated, and hardly anyone noticed—a telling sign of the utter transformation it brought about. In October, the Museum of Modern Art reprinted an exhibition catalog that, in its original incarnation, had sold out quickly and then disappeared into legend, to be hawked by rare-book dealers for $500 or $600 and seen by those of us with shallower pockets rarely, if at all.

The book was called William Eggleston's Guide.Its creator was a somewhat eccentric Memphis native in his mid-30s who had come up to MoMA with a box full of slides and managed to convince that august and deliberate institution to grant him their very first one-man exhibition of color photography.

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The show was a milestone, an annunciation of the coming of color; thereafter, black and white would come to seem slightly quaint and precious—evocative, as it is in, say, Cindy Sherman's film stills, of a distant past. New art photography would be almost all chromatic: Nan Goldin, Mitch Epstein, Richard Prince, and Andreas Gursky all owe the ready acceptance of their work—though not their work itself—to Eggleston's breakthrough.

Now, I'll ask you to guess what year all this happened—and bear in mind that color movies became common in the '30s and color television was first broadcast in 1955. So the first one-man show of color photographs at the high temple of modern vanguard photography was … ?

1976.

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This is astounding, if you think about it. By 1976 color was everywhere—on every magazine cover, in movie houses, and on televisions. Warhol's commercial-colored Campbell's soup paintings had appeared in 1965. Dan Flavin was putting colored neon light sculptures in galleries as far back as 1966. But photography was still almost all black-and-white, guided by aphorisms like Walker Evans' declaration that color was "vulgar" and Robert Frank's insistence that "black and white are the colors of photography."

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It's difficult, in retrospect, to understand just what was so contemptible about Kodachrome up until the mid-'70s. Part of it, I suspect, was simply the anxiety, attendant upon photography since its inception, that the medium wasn't really an art form at all but a quasi-scientific technique. In this regard, the unreality of black and white was reassuring, as if it provided an aesthetic guarantee by removing the colors of the world. Part of it was simply that color images were a tacky bit of business, associated with magazines and billboards and the snapshots that ordinary people took of their vacations and weddings. The medium seemed almost inherently superficial: Where black-and-white photos revealed essential forms arranged in uninflected space, color caught all the surfaces and, therefore, required an entirely different approach to composition.

Then, too, using color halved photographers' control over their art. Since very few people had the expertise (or could afford the equipment) to develop and print their own color work, the artist was transformed into little more than a shutterbug—dependent upon technicians in commercial labs to fashion the works that their public would actually see.

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And part of it, to be fair, was simply that color film hadn't reached the technical level of its black-and-white counterpart; it wasn't anywhere near as sensitive to light, for example, or as sharp, which meant that pictures had to be taken outdoors or under strong artificial light.

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