New York

“The New Color”

Just as information, “The New Color” is a welcome show. A few years ago, color suddenly gained a new acceptance. The breakthrough was the show that John Szarkowski gave William Eggleston at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976. After that, old-timers who had been working in color—Harry Callahan, for instance, and Helen Levitt—received new attention. And a couple of younger photographers who were already using color, Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore, quickly established themselves as the premier color view-camera photographers. “The New Color,” which appeared originally at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, included all these people. In the excellently printed book on which the show was based (Abbeville Press, $39.95), author/curator Sally Eauclaire acknowledges Eggleston’s precedence by putting him first herself. She also recognizes the importance of others like Meyerowitz, whose work is reproduced in as great a quantity as Eggleston’s.

The real problem she had to face in putting together “The New Color” was not these preeminent figures, however. It was the deluge of photographers who have come after them. The magnitude of the problem is illustrated by the fact that Meyerowitz alone has spawned at least four of the other photographers in the show—Larry Babis, Joanne Mulberg, Len Jenshel, and Mitch Epstein were all his students at some point. If each of the prominent color photographers fostered serious students at this rate, you’d need the Astrodome in order to hold an exhibition. The field has been burgeoning—at times it seems to be exploding—with young photographers. This is where Eauclaire’s show and book come in handy. Merely as a directory of color photographers, the book is valuable, for it includes brief biographies, bibliographies, and even technical notes for each of the 47 photographers in the show.

The show also reveals a very high caliber of work by many of the younger photographers. In some cases, “The New Color” gave me a second exposure to photographers whom I’d liked before, and whose work held up well. Len Jenshel impressed me again with his sense of atmosphere, the way that something you can hardly put your finger on—fog, the scattering of the figures, or just the lay of the land—enlivens every picture. And I remembered with pleasure having seen a few years ago the work of Joe Maloney, who probes the outer limits of film’s capacity to reproduce color like a trumpet player squeezing out of his instrument high notes beyond the reach of its valves. In addition, l enjoyed the work of Joel Sternfeld, Leo Rubinfien, and John Pfahl (more on them later).

As information, then, “The New Color” was enlightening, stimulating, even encouraging. Nevertheless, as an exhibition I think it failed. The trouble I had with it lay in Eauclaire’s approach. The show was arranged in seven categories that didn’t really hold together. As I went from one section to another, the divisions between them began to seem arbitrary in ways that Eauclaire’s text for her book, unwittingly, confirms. The first category, for example, is “Color Photographic Formalism,” and the first plate in it is an Eggleston photograph containing a car fender, a barbecue, and a man’s hand. Eauclaire explains that Eggleston typically converts what seem to be “amateur snapshots” into formal compositions like this one, in which “crimson hand, orange fire, and red reflections . . . describe a constellation that spans the image’s full width.” But then the photographs in the next category, “The Vivid Vernacular,” are said to be inspired by “amateur snapshots,” too, and a Meyerowitz photograph in it is praised for the way “a pink triangular portion of a skirt flashes . like the similar reds of a nearby rope and flag . . . [while] a ‘don’t walk’ sign and tail lights of cars sprinkle more red across the image.” The more I looked and read, the more indistinguishable the two categories became.

I had similar difficulties when “Self-Reflections” contained a Sternfeld picture whose flash distortion made it seem like Mark Cohen’s work, which was in “Vernacular” (the book compounds the difficulty by discussing Sternfeld’s picture under “Documentation”). The sequencing of the pictures in the book admits to this slippage between categories, as when the last picture of one category looks identical to the opening picture of the next section. In some places, a sequence by a single photographer is used as a bridge between sections. As a writer, Eauclaire indulges in alliteration like a favorite vice. Thus we get the phrases “vivid and vital vernacular” or “coincidental confluences of color and choreography.” She lets herself be carried from word to word by aural associations that ultimately obscure what she is trying to say. As a curator, she has a weakness for visual associations that are just as unhelpful.

In the end, all Eauclaire’s categories break down into one category: formalism. That’s the only category of thought into which she fits as a critic, anyway. The singularity of her approach in every section of the book is what makes the sections hard to tell apart, and the show left the same impression, even without the text, because formalism can’t succeed any better as a criterion for grouping photographs. In one way, a formalist approach does seem right for color photography. Formalism is a good way for criticism to begin; and since serious color photography is only in its beginning stages, this sort of discussion seems appropriate. But formal analysis is always inchoate, incomplete. It can’t achieve the kind of overview to which Eauclaire aspires. Ironically, Eauclaire’s excessive respect for formalism is deflated by someone in her own show, Pfahl, whose work is a practical joke played on formalist esthetics. In one photograph of red-rock erosion, for instance, Pfahl has laid in the foreground squiggles of string that echo, and mock, the contours of the rock. In another picture, trees near a beach are banded with tinfoil so that it coincides exactly with the band of water visible between sand and sky. These photographs are witty, not least of all for the way they undermine the authority of the show that contained them.

If I were Eauclaire, I would have approached this show from the opposite direction. I would have begun where she ends, on the last page of her book. It contains her “Index to the Artists,” a cross-reference with which we can put back together the oeuvre of each photographer dispersed among her categories. Only with the aid of this index can the exhibition aim at what I think should be the goal of both exhibition and criticism—to show the artist whole, to reveal the human being behind the art. Many young photographers start out by doing everything they can to avoid human contact. They only photograph people as reflected in shop windows, or they construct elaborate still lifes to get subject matter, or they spend all their time in the darkroom trying, like alchemists, to conjure from prints what is missing in the negatives. They do what they must in order not to confront either the subjects or themselves. I wonder whether Eauclaire’s abstract and impersonal categories aren’t just a way of doing the same thing.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.