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June 23rd, 2005
Innovators of Color Photography Honored in Exhibition of Photographs from the 1970s

In the 1960s, when elder statesmen of photography such as Edward Steichen and Walker Evans declared color photographs to be lurid and vulgar, a group of innovative artists including William Christenberry and William Eggleston began experimenting with improved technologies to seriously explore the possibilities of color photography. Their potent work, often examining humble subject matter, gained recognition in the 1970s and inspired a new generation of American color photographers.

Mavericks of Color: Photographs from the Collection, on view in the Julien Levy Gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from July 30–November 27, 2005, presents a rare look at more than fifty photographs from the Museum’s collection by several dedicated practitioners of color photography: Christenberry, Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz and Eliot Porter. The work of these ‘mavericks’ was startling and revolutionary at a time when the carefully composed, meticulously printed black-and-white photograph was the standard for the medium.

“Although it may be hard to imagine today, color photography in the 1970s was viewed not as art but as a tool for commercial photography, amateur snapshots, or popular movies,” said Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs at the Alfred Stieglitz Center in the Museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. “The opportunity to grapple with a new set of technical issues and to explore an expressive medium with few precedents was an exciting prospect for the artists represented in this show. Their pioneering images laid the groundwork for the incredible explosion of color photography we see today.”

Porter (American, 1901-1990) was a biochemist and dedicated amateur photographer when he was offered an exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, in 1938. A generation older than the other three artists in this exhibition, he began experimenting with color photography in 1940, in part due to the importance of color in identifying birds. Porter soon gave up his scientific career to become a full-time photographer and was resourceful in his inventions to make the camera more effective in the field. In 1943, a selection of his color work was presented in the solo exhibition Birds in Color: Flashlight Photographs by Eliot Porter at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. By the early 1950s, he was publishing his color pictures extensively in a variety of magazines and journals. Featured in this exhibition are selections from his beautiful 1972 portfolio Iceland, published by the Sierra Club, and the dynamic 1977 portfolio, Birds in Flight.

Christenberry (American, b. 1936) came to photography as a painter. Attracted by the forms and textures of the vernacular architecture around Hale County, Alabama, Christenberry used a Brownie camera to photograph gas stations, churches, and corner stores as studies for his paintings. During a stint in New York City, Christenberry got up the courage to call photographer Walker Evans and eventually showed him the photographs, which Evans encouraged him to take seriously. Christenberry went on to teach at Memphis State University in Tennessee and in 1968 moved to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., where his color photographs were shown in a solo exhibition in 1973. Christenberry often returns to the same subjects, photographing the effects of time, weather, and neglect. The photographs in this exhibition were previously featured in Christenberry’s solo show at this Museum in 1991, William Christenberry: Photographs.

Eggleston’s (American, b. 1936) solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1976 signaled a breakthrough in the acceptance of color photography and his concurrent publication William Eggleston’s Guide remains an important touchstone for the medium. Born in Memphis, the artist spent his childhood in rural Tennessee. Inspired by the photographs by Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans, which he saw in books, Eggleston started photographing with black-and-white film. Increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of color photography, he struck up a friendship with Christenberry. Known for his photographs of the American South, Eggleston has built an international reputation on his vibrant portraits of the utterly commonplace. Among his iconic works on view are powerful images of seemingly simple subjects---a red ceiling punctuated by a single bare light bulb, a tricycle abandoned on the sidewalk, and a hooded jacket hanging on a nail.

Meyerowitz (American, b. 1938) was working as an art director and designer in New York City when he became excited about the possibilities of photography. After observing Robert Frank in action, he picked up the camera in 1962 and began shooting color slides. Drawn to the bright signs and flux of the city, Meyerowitz worked in the tradition of street photography, first working with black-and-white film before turning in earnest to color printing in 1973. His bold images often capture the surprising juxtapositions and instantaneous events of daily life, such as the cryptic confluence of gestures among strangers or a man falling down in the street. In the midst of creating this powerful body of work, Meyerowitz became captivated by light and atmosphere. In 1976, he switched from a 35mm camera to an old-fashioned 8x10 Deardorff, so that instead of firing off multiple frames inside a crowd he needed to set up the camera on a tripod, look at the subject upside-down, and compose a single frame at a time. The result of this new approach was the chromatically subtle series Cape Light, two of which are included in this exhibition alongside a broader selection of his lively cityscapes taken in New York City, Paris, Mexico City, and Malaga, Spain.

Rounding out the exhibition are examples from the 1970s by other color mavericks, including Harry Callahan (1912-1998), David Graham (b. 1952), William Larson (b. 1942), Lucas Samaras (b. 1936) and Stephen Shore (b. 1947).

Housing some 150,000 works of art, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is nationally recognized for the breadth and depth of its collections as well as the flair and scholarship of its exhibitions. The Department presents rotating installations of its vast holdings in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries and the Julien Levy Gallery on the Museum’s ground floor and the Eglin Gallery on the first floor. Individual works are also on view in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries.

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