By ASX Editors
Eggleston’s wife Rosa remembers being awestruck when she saw his first slides beam out of their home projector, a quintessential “amateur” moment after the road trip, a travelogue (or, alternatively, how one might vet images for a fashion shoot before printing them for publication). “It was so saturated and so intense,” she said. “It was astounding to see color like that.”
By Anna Kerrer Kivlan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007 – The first part in a multi-part text on Eggleston.
Despite their ostensive similarity to the amateur snapshot, noted disparagingly by Thornton and Kramer, the pictures were not made with the Kodak lnstamatic or Polaroid one might have taken on a family vacation, but rather with a Leica. That small camera carried with it a mystique, for it signaled a commitment to photography as art, and had been used by the most highly regarded black and white photographers Robert Frank, Walker Evans,Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Eggleston’s role-model, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The fact that the Guide was the result of work done with a high-art Leica is significant, for during the time leading up to Eggleston’s exhibition, color photography had been denigrated as emphatically not art. It was badmouthed by photographers such as Evans (enshrined for his photographs of the Great Depression), who wrote in the late 1969 book of essays edited by Louis Kronenberger, Quality: Its Image in the Arts, “There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.” By this logic, Evans concluded that color film was an ideal medium for the rendering of subjects that were likewise vulgar:
When the point of a picture subject is precisely its vulgarity or its
color-accident through man’s hands not God’s, then only can color
film be used validly…. Almost always, color can be used well only by
a photographer who is an artist of perfect taste-Marie Cosindas for
example-and of immense technical mastery; for color has to be
controlled and altered from start to finish by selection of film, by lens
filters, and in developing and printing.”
Frank, who had been lauded for his searing 1959 documentary series, The Americans, was known to have concluded simply that “black and white are the colors of photography.” As with Evans, Frank’s opinion was not to be taken lightly; in Szarkowski’s esteemed view, the Swiss photographer’s The Americans series was one of the works that established the main thrust of photography in the fifties, along with the 1952 founding of the photography journal Aperture by Minor White.
Color film had been on the market since the 1930s-as early as 1948, articles in The New York Times covered amateur exhibitions featuring multiple-toned color prints while new developers were offered that aimed to improve detail in color prints, through the Kodak Dye Transfer process. It is therefore telling that color photography did not come of age as an art form until the late 1960s.16 MoMA’s very first exhibition of color photographs was in 1962, featuring work by Ernest Haas.17 While Haas’s work, according to Szarkowski, was “handsome and even inventive,” it fell short of Eggleston’s later accomplishment because it was “dedicated to a basically familiar idea of beauty, one very indebted to painterly traditions.”18 MoMA’s next attempt at mastering the art of photographic color was a 1966 exhibition of the still life portfolio of Marie Cosindas. Invitations were mailed to thousands of Polaroid stockholders in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York on thick card stock with a glossy Cosindas Polaroid of flowers in a vase pasted on the front.19
Eggleston’s hobby was to watch thousands of rows of amateur snapshots being developed at the local photography lab.
According to a MoMA press release, the exhibition was the museum’s first to be devoted entirely to prints made by the Polaroid Land Process.
The 4 x 5 prints “specially matted and mounted on color papers chosen by Miss Cosindas” were described as having “exotic color and startling detail.” To Szarkowski, the photographs-“as real and as unlikely as butterflies”- inhabited, as for him artistic photographs must, a timeless realm. Indeed, the images possessed an “otherworldliness” that referred to a “place and time not quite identifiable-a place with the morning-fresh textures and the opalescent light of a private Arcady, and to a time suspended, as in a child’s long holiday.”
Ten years later, in the introductory essay to William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkowski cited Cosindas’s work alongside Irving Penn’s as the few “conspicuous successes of color photography.” Yet neither Cosindas nor Penn had resolved the issue of color within the tradition of so-called “straight,” uncontrived photography. Their achievement had thus been less than Eggleston’s, having amounted only to “masterly studio constructions, designed to suit the preferences of the camera” and dependent on a “high degree of prior control over the material photographed.
Critical and media response to the Haas and Cosindas exhibitions, and to Helen Levitt’s 1974 show of color slides as part of MoMA’s “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art,” was meager in comparison to the coverage of Eggleston’s show two years later. In a short blurb about Levitt’s forty color slides of New York street life taken after 1971, The Village Voice took note of the color issue only by observing with disinterest: “Purists may feel that great documentary photos still come only in black and white.” Park East’s brief mention of the slide exhibition, which was “shown in continuous projection describing New York street life,” makes no mention whatsoever about color.
Color film was, at the time, inseparably associated with magazines such as Life and Vogue, with television, Super 8 home movie cameras, and Technicolor movies. Color film was not the medium of the fine artist. It was better suited the director of raunchy, sex-and-violence-crazed double features shown at the local movie theater. How could the same medium exuberantly producing trash cinema be called upon to make something worthy of MoMA’s walls? Never before had such an inherently uncouth medium been smuggled into the rarefied world of high art. There was no mistaking it: color film was a wildcard for the art world.
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