The New American Color

The New American Color
Photo by: Federico Alegría

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For a significant amount of time, rendering visual reality through photography was easier to achieve via monochromatic means rather than color. Taking into account that we humans don’t see in black and white, this is something quite curious if you think about it for a second. It was easier to register the observable aspects of our surroundings with a format that alters reality with a truthful grayscale representation of light.

Sure, there’s the evidence telling us about the existence of early color photography. But such techniques were expensive, complex, and hardly consistent. Later on, during the twentieth century, technical difficulties about color photography were sufficiently overcome; giving us consistent visual results. With the appearance of Kodak’s Ektachrome and Kodachrome, color stills became a popular thing among the people, but not so much within the serious photography world. That’s right, color in photography was down-seen by photographers for quite a long time.

Some referred to it as vulgar, and some others weren’t satisfied with the chromatic representations film was delivering during that time. Something curious to note here is that even today, digital cameras reproduce color in a pretty singular way. Therefore, it’s more understandable that chemistry-based photography would render color in a harder to control way.

Many aspects get involved when thinking about how film color photography would behave. Optics break downlight in specific ways depending on their internal elements, coatings, and even smudges in any of the lenses embedded in them; not to mention how plastic and cheap components fragment light. Multiple artificial light sources, development times, temperatures, and even the shaking rhythm while bathing the films interfere with the final result. And if that wasn’t enough, the printing process was also a huge source of variability in how color was rendered while working with film.

Amidst this context, some photographers in the United States became interested in color, and that’s what this entry is all about, the so-called “New American Color”. A photographic movement in which the following American photographers expanded the boundaries of the craft through the use of color. And the main vision all of them had was focusing on contemporary life, capturing the raw dimensions of suburbia while speaking for the social traits left behind by the heavily ideologized concept of “The American Dream”.

Evelyn Hofer (1922 – 2009)

Although we have a longer piece on her resonant photograph heritage, it is still valid to mention the work of “the most famous unknown photographer in America”.

Some might categorize her work as “New-objectivity” and some others within the realm of “The New American Color”. And with such a vast photographic career, why not both? Early Hofer’s work was mainly filled with human and architectural subjects. And in her later years, with a more mature and perhaps more contemplative vision of the world, she turned her camera towards still-life images. Something similar to Harold Feinstein’s work for example.

More than a talented photographer, she was also a skilled chemist; an invaluable skill for any photographer working with color. Her visual studies covered art theory in a broadly aesthetic way. But such knowledge wasn’t the main cause of her resonant work. Her secret was to combine her education with relevant social topics.

Marie Cosindas (1923 -)

She had the privilege of attending photography workshops conducted by Ansel Adams and Minor White during the early sixties. From a design and painting background, her ability for controlling color in photography stood out from the crowd. She was always intrigued by the possibilities of the medium and experimented with different development procedures (times and temperatures for the most).

Cosindas was fascinated with fabrics, masks, old dolls, and textures. Also, she is still considered to be one of the first serious photographers to explore the possibilities, amidst the limitations, of Polaroid instant print materials successfully and consistently. Adams recognised that she could shoot in black and white while thinking in color; certainly, a non-despicable accomplishment. She is a good example of how to break the rules fruitfully, and if you are intrigued with her work, here you can explore a fascinating gallery curated by Oscar Colorado.

William Christenberry (1936 – 2016)

Finding new approaches to photography is almost certain when crafting pieces like this. Christenberry grew up in Tuscaloosa, a city in western Alabama. Each summer he experienced the rural lifestyle with his grandparents in Hale County. And in the late ’50s, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Alabama in his hometown. He is one of those many photographers who got closer to light thanks to a Brownie camera from his childhood years. But these weren’t precisely the final product he was looking for. He shot colour photographs with this little friend so he could have trustworthy and reliable visual references for his further paintings.

In 1960, he encountered this book and his whole vision of the world changed forever. Thanks to it, he realised that his grandparents had known the poor sharecropper families whose lives were documented in it. Christenberry contacted Walker Evans in 1961. Eventually, these two became close friends after he encouraged William to take those Brownie snapshots in a more serious and committed way.

His work is an enlightening example of blending photography into other creative practices like painting and sculpture. His photographic interests remained extremely personal throughout his career. He cherished vernacular architecture and signs from the southern U.S. in a rather nostalgic yet honest way.

Joel Meyerowitz (1938 -)

With a strongly consistent aim towards street photography, he is one of the main figures from the New American Color photographic movement since the 1960s. By majoring in painting and medical illustration, we can certainly qualify his academic background as interesting and unique. He worked as a graphic designer and art director, but Robert Frank’s work profoundly changed his vision of the world.

Like Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand, he began by alternating black & white with color during the ’60s, but in 1972 he adopted color as a permanent thing. Also worth mentioning, one of his main drivers towards street photography was a self-felt debt with Cartier-Bresson’s aesthetic. Last but not least, take a look at this magnificent documentary made possible by Cheryl Dunn, which covers other great photographers of course, in order to get a better grasp on his visual philosophy and how fresh his ideas are.

William Eggleston (1939 -)

No “New American Colour” related piece would ever be complete without mentioning William Eggleston. Some consider him as the father of color photography, and despite such a title being quite misleading, it is true that his efforts placed this format in a different place. But such a milestone was only made possible thanks to John Szarkowski, a crucial figure in contemporary photography’s history.

Both Eggleston and Szarkowski deserve broader pieces for each of them, but let’s centre on how these two rocked the world of fine art photography forever. In 1967, WE handed JS some of his color prints, and during 9 years he edited-down 400 photographs to produce a 75 images exhibition at MoMA. The final selection had the spirit of a family album, and that vernacular approach pierced the history of photography in an unpresented way.

John Margolies (1940 – 2016)

Since his childhood, Margolies became curious about roadside attractions while riding in the backseat of his parent’s car. At age 16, he got his driver’s license and his photographic journey began. Famous for the “John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive“, he studied everything within the scope of “vernacular”. Restaurants, gas stations, movie theatres, motels, signage, miniature golf courses, and beach and mountain vacation resorts. Everything!

In his images, he went straight into the human hand that shaped his surroundings. While doing so, he managed to isolate structures in a direct angle that provides a clear descriptive overview of his sights. In short, Margolies was overwhelmed with the graphic nature with which buildings reflected the soul of their makers.

Joel Sternfeld (1944 -)

Like Eggleston, he has also dealt with the vernacular aesthetic of everyday life. His images are characterized by the use of large-format cameras, and color is the cornerstone of his work. During the ’80s, he recorded a portrait of his nation during the Reagan’s administration under the title of “American Prospects”; and the bitter-sweet outcome is considered as one of the greatest bodies of color in the history of photography. Something like what Robert Frank did but with the supposed challenge of color for sure. Still active nowadays, he has produced with great power an interesting view of how nature and cities collide.

Stephen Shore (1947 -)

From the ’70s, he set a new standard for the vernacular landscape through his large-format images. With his works “American Surfaces” and “Uncommon Places” he influenced the aesthetics and photographic approach of postmodernism.

Along with William Eggleston, Shore is one of the pioneers in the use of color in fine art photography. In the early 1970s, he began some unusual work that shocked the art world. With this, he made a photographic diary loaded with instant color images, the perfect format to achieve the aesthetic that he was looking for.

Unlike the paradigm ascribed to Cartier-Bresson, Shore didn’t go after the decisive moments. On the contrary, he wanted to capture the moments in which nothing was going on. Retrospectively, he always considered himself an explorer. And in the same opposed way to HCB’s vision, his photographs also contrasted with those of Robert Frank since he could never separate himself from his European vision while documenting the United States.

Mitch Epstein (1952 -)

Beyond the colorful universe he has produced with his images, he has maintained a social discourse in a pretty consistent way through his photographs. Since his photographs aim to translate subjects into symbolic objects, he states that his work is not documentary.

His works are fascinating, and to mention a few, he has examined the social aftermath of the German war and post-war and how these painful memories are embedded into contemporary life. He also has studied the thrashing of the real estate family businesses in the United States; as well as the reduction of privacy amidst the increase in surveillance cameras in New York. Since 11S, his work became increasingly difficult due to national security measures prohibiting picture-taking of buildings and other places across the country.

Alex Webb (1952 -)

He knows how to approach places by walking, and his work is both questioning and exploratory. Alex Webb strongly believes in the power photography has for conveying a certain level of ambiguity, that ask questions rather than provide answers. He is largely known for his complex and vibrant color photographs of serendipitous or enigmatic moments, often in places with socio-political tensions. As a Magnum photographer, it is no surprise to know that has worked in places as varied as the U.S.-Mexican border, Haiti, Istanbul, and, most recently, various American cities.

About color, he credits Latin and Caribbean cultures for inspiring him into approaching this format in a specifically vibrant way. Webb has published 16 photography books and has received several awards and grants including a Hasselblad Foundation Grant in 1998, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1990, and the Leica Medal of Excellence in 2000.

Wrapping it Up!

Nowadays, color photography is so ubiquitous that if we want monochrome images, we need to transform our color raw files to achieve it (sure, unless one has something like this). But exploring how these photographers pushed the boundaries of such an unstable format is inspiring. Many of these photographers praised the way Kodachrome rendered color in front of their cameras, and here’s an entertaining movie for you to get closer to this particular film.