When Color Was New @Saul

JTF (just the facts): 38 mostly vintage works, hung in both the small entrance way and the larger, light filled gallery. (Installation shot, at right.) Negative dates range from 1936 (Outerbridge) to 1985 (Eggleston), though most are clustered in the 1970s. Here’s a list of the photographers included in the exhibit, with the number of works in parentheses:

Harry Callahan (2)
William Christenberry (2)
William Eggleston (2)
Mitch Epstein (1)
Walker Evans (1)
Luigi Ghirri (3)
Nan Goldin (2)
Dan Graham (1)
Jan Groover (2)
David Hockney (1)
Helen Levitt (2)
Joel Meyerowitz (4)
Paul Outerbridge (1)
Martin Parr (2)
John Pfahl (2)
Stephen Shore (2)
Arthur Siegel (2)
Joel Sternfeld (2)
Boyd Webb (2)
Terry Wild (2)

Comments/Context: After spending some time with this exhibition, my conclusion is that the time “when color was new” was a mixed bag, a chaotic period of experimentation, with an appropriately uneven selection of work produced. It seems as though each artist had his or her own challenges with “digesting” the new ideas color brought to the table. A few were successful in getting over to the other side, many failed, and another group abandoned the old ways and embraced the new. While different photographers experimented with different processes over a decently long period of time (where, by the way, is the representative autochrome?), it is clear that things really changed after Eggleston was canonized; the MoMA exhibit encouraged a whole generation of photographers to continue down a new road. Thirty years later, we now take color for granted.

A recurring thought for me as I looked at these pictures was that while some were clearly better than others, on the whole, this early work as a genre is under appreciated by collectors. I don’t think I can name a single collector who has a large, deep collection of this kind of work, although they must be out there somewhere (there isn’t a single color picture in our collection at the moment, but I think this will change over time). A few thoughts on a handful of the artists represented:

  • Shore: I think Shore will be the first color photographer in our collection. His work from this time was very consistently strong and is getting stronger with age. Looking at the images, you can see that he actually completely rethought how color influenced the process of picture making.
  • Evans: His late Polaroids are fun. I’d like to have a group/grid of these matted/hung together.
  • Parr: These pictures are deceptively well made, and resonate long after you have stopped smirking at the joke.
  • Pfahl: Why is this work forgotten? As an aside, we had a Pfahl that my mother bought hanging in our house when I was growing up. It was the one with strips of lace spread over the scrub brush, echoing the foam from the waves at the seashore (I don’t know the exact title off hand.) I always thought it was a puzzling and amazing image. I think the same for his other work; really unlike anyone else.
  • Sternfeld: While his work won’t fit as neatly into one of our genres, I think his pictures continue to be thought provoking, partly because of their use of color, partly because of their careful setting of scenes.
  • Callahan: I think his dye transfers are under appreciated. When I was first exposed to them, I didn’t think much of them, but as time has passed, I think they are standing up better than I had originally thought.

Another reaction I had to this show was that I need to force myself to be more attentive to the different color processes (carbo, chromogenic, dye transfer, Cibachrome, Polaroid etc.) and the nuances of their color palettes – they really are aging at different rates. Some seem dated; others seem fresh.

Collector’s POV: Prices in this show range from $1500 (Pfahl) to $50000 (Sternfeld), with the ever mysterious NFS (not for sale) obscuring the value of a few of the pictures (the iconic Eggleston in particular). I think Evans ($6000), and Shore ($8000-10000) seem close to reasonable for Chelsea retail. Christenberry ($6000) and Callahan ($8500) are higher than recent auction ranges for equivalent work. Joel Meyerowitz‘ work seemed astonishingly high to me ($16000-$45000), but I’m not following it closely.

All in all, this a worthwhile exhibit that gets you thinking about some work that may have drifted off your radar.

Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)

When Color Was New
Through September 6th

Julie Saul Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Read more about: Julie Saul Gallery

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