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.

Against this roiling mass of resentment, hidebound dismissal, and genuine technical inadequacy, Eggleston made his singular way, emerging out the other end as the Father of Color Photography. In truth, to grant him such a title is to foreshorten history a little: Paul Outerbridge and Eliot Porter had worked in color, and so had Eggleston's contemporary, Stephen Shore. But Eggleston, more than anyone, legitimized the medium, for what he did was to take color's perceived vices and, by pushing them a little farther along the axis of their failings, turn them into virtues, thereby liberating the process to work on its own terms.

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And so the pictures seem to be as casually framed as snapshots, their elements arranged in odd spirals, achieving an unlikely balance that seems more fortuitous than planned. The subject matter is often as banal as can be, pictures of folks who mean nothing to you unless you know them, engaged in activities as meaningless as possible. They're not even those archetypes of humanity—the staring poor, the rushing urbanite, the glamour wannabes—that occupied photographers of the past. Here, instead, we have the irreducibly singular, as if what the camera caught had never happened before and will never happen again in precisely the same way: a young boy lying on the floor of a garage, a woman strolling down the side of a road, a pink-tongued dog drinking from a puddle.

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And yet some of the images are positively lurid, as if the artist were declaring, "Take that"—and then producing a photo of a furnace-red brick building, a sordidly green-tiled shower stall, an elderly woman whose garishly patterned dress clashes with the equally garish daybed on which she's sitting. A photograph of a tree at night is washed out by the photographer's flash, leaving only a distant red stop sign to keep the entire composition from being almost insufferably unbalanced and shot through with glare. Nowadays, when it's not unusual to see manifest grain, or light flaring uncontrollably off a glass surface, or even red-eye in pictures on gallery and museum walls, you might think that what Eggleston did seems rather tame. But many of these images—see, for example, the infamous RedCeiling—still have the power to shock.

Certainly, they were shocking at the time; in 1976, when the Guide was first exhibited, it received notoriously nasty reviews. (Hilton Kramer—then, as now, absolutely wrong about absolutely everything—called the show "Perfectly banal … Perfectly boring.") In retrospect, the show was both necessary and beautiful, and with the catalog's reprinting, it can and should be seen by everyone.

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In a way, Eggleston did for color photography what the Dutch Masters of genre did for painting in the 16th and 17th centuries: He took it out of the hands of the wealthy institutions that had sponsored it (fashion magazines and advertising agencies in the one case, the church in the other) and turned it into an expression of the everyday. It is not so far, after all, from the vulgar to the vernacular: Eggleston bridged the gap, and in doing so delivered color back into the hands of art.

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

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