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Amon Carter Museum of American Art presents transformative color photography exhibition
Mark Cohen (b. 1943), Boy in Yellow Shirt Smoking, 1977. Dye coupler print© Mark Cohen. Courtesy the artist and ROSEGALLERY.

FORT WORTH, TX.- On October 5, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art opens Color! American Photography Transformed, a compelling examination of how color has changed the very nature of photography, transforming it into today’s dominant artistic medium. Color! includes more than 70 exceptional photographs by as many photographers and is on view through January 5, 2014. Admission is free.

“Color is so integral to photography today that it is difficult to remember how new it is or realize how much it has changed the medium,” says John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs.

The exhibition covers the full history of photography, from 1839, when Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) introduced his daguerreotype process, to the present. From the start, disappointed that photographs could only be made in black and white, photographers and scientists alike sought with great energy to achieve color. Color! begins with a rare direct-color photograph made in 1851 by Levi L. Hill (1816–1865), but explains how Hill could neither capture a full range of color nor replicate his achievement. It then shows finely rendered hand-colored photographs to share how photographers initially compensated for the lack of color.

When producing color photographs became commercially feasible in 1907 in the form of the glass-plate Autochrome, leading artists like Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) were initially overjoyed, according to Rohrbach. Color! offers exquisite examples of their work even as it explains their ultimate rejection of the process because it was too difficult to display and especially because they felt it mirrored human sight too closely to be truly creative.

“Although many commercial photographers embraced color photography over succeeding decades, artists continued to puzzle over the medium,” Rohrbach explains. Color! reveals that many artists from Richard Avedon (1923–2004) to Henry Holmes Smith (1909–1986) tried their hand at making color photographs through the middle decades of the 20th century, and it shows the wide range of approaches they took to color. It also shares the background debates among artists and photography critics over how to employ color and even whether color photographs could have the emotional force of their black-and-white counterparts.

Only in 1976, when curator John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York heralded the young Memphis photographer William Eggleston’s (b. 1939) snapshot-like color photographs as the solution to artful color, did fine art color photography gain full acceptance.

“Eggleston revealed how color can simultaneously describe objects and stand apart from those objects as pure hue,” Rohrbach says. “In so doing, he successfully challenged the longstanding conception of photography as a medium that found its calling on close description.”

Color! illustrates through landmark works by Jan Groover (1943–2012), Joel Meyerowitz (b. 1938) and others the blossoming of artists’ use of color photography that followed in the wake of Szarkowski’s celebration of Eggleston. It also reveals artists’ gradual absorption of the notion that color could be used flexibly to critique cultural mores and to shape stories. In this new color world, recording the look of things was important, but it was less important than conveying a message about life. In this important shift, led by artists as diverse as Andres Serrano (b. 1950) and Laurie Simmons (b. 1949), the exhibition explains, photography aligned itself far more closely with painting.

Color! shows how the rise of digital technologies furthered this transformation, as photographers such as Gregory Crewdson (b. 1962), Richard Misrach (b. 1949) and Alex Prager (b. 1979) have explicitly embraced the hues, scale, and even subjects of painting and cinema.

“Photography still gains its power and wide popularity today from its ability to closely reflect the world,” explains Rohrbach, “but Color! reveals how contemporary artists have been using reality not as an end unto itself, but as a jumping off point for exploring the emotional and cultural power of color, even blurring of line between record and fiction to make their points. These practices, founded on color, have transformed photography into the dominant art form of today even as they have opened new questions about the very nature of the medium.”

The exhibition will include an interactive photography timeline enabling visitors to contribute to the visual dialogue by sharing their own color images. The photographs will be displayed along the timeline and on digital screens in the museum during the exhibition to illustrate how quantity, format and color quality have evolved over time.

“By telling the full story of color photography’s evolution, the exhibition innovatively uncovers the fundamental change that color has brought to how photographers think about their medium,” says Andrew J. Walker, museum director. “The story is fascinating and the works are equally captivating. Photography fans and art enthusiasts in general will revel in the opportunity to see works by this country’s great photographers.”

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