[Ed. Note: Ctein is off today, busy preparing for the last great dye transfer sale which starts one week from today.]
I had a very nice day yesterday—my friend (and friend o' TOP) Kenneth Tanaka and his wife Christine took the train up from Chicago to tour the splendid "Color Rush" show at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) with me. Because Ken and Chris are among the backers of the show, they're acquainted with Lisa Sutcliffe, who just joined MAM as its new Curator of Photography, coming from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). Lisa just started her tenure in January. So Lisa joined us for lunch and then treated us to a guided tour of the show—a distinct pleasure for me, for sure.
The show is subtitled—well, as you can see from the picture—"75 Years of Color Photography in America," and it's a honey. It uses as its starting point the advent of the Lumière brothers' Autochrome process, first marketed in 1907, and picks as its endpoint the publication of Sally Eauclaire's book The New Color in late 1981. I remember the latter as being considered a bit of a pretender when it came out—color photographers were still pretty uncommon then and there was lots of murmuring about that book, especially among those who were left out—but it's as good a marker as any of the "gathering steam years" of the now-nearly-complete color revolution.
The show itself is co-curated by Lisa Hostetler, formerly Curator of Photography at MAM and now McEvoy Family Curator of Photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (gone but not forgotten), and Katherine Bussard, who recently left her position as Associate Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago to become Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum. (Kate is a friend of Ken's, which I'm going to guess is how he got involved.)
The show's been very popular here. It's advertised continuously on local TV and the public has responded: attendance has been great, and people seem to really like it. (Midday, midweek, the older parts of the Museum were all but deserted but "Color Rush" had a decent number of visitors circulating about.) And no wonder. Kate and Lisa H.'s interests and tastes are apparently complementary, synergystic, and superadditive. There is lots of tasty stuff to look at from any of numerous angles—examples of color printing in magazines, books, and newspapers; commercial photography and efforts to market color to advertisers; fine art work and its evolution; and a stellar, astutely chosen, yet widely varied cast of photographers. The effect is of inclusivity and dynamic variety. It was wonderful, for instance, to see a red-on-red advertising photo by Victor Keppler, father of Burt Keppler, longtime Publishing Director of Popular Photography magazine, in the same show with Eggleston's red ceiling.
One of my own criteria by which I judge exhibits is simply whether the pictures are good to look at. As we all know, this sometimes decidedly takes a back seat in the art world—I'm sure you've been to shows in which the work was properly girded with all the proper conceptual and scholarly or in-group bonafides but just doesn't entertain the eye worth a damn. In that context, "Color Rush" all but soars—curators Hostetler and Bussard's taste in pictures is exquisite and sure, and many of their selections are just gems...there were a number of pictures in the show I wouldn't mind communing with at length. A Louise Dahl-Wolfe fashion shot, an Ernst Haas or two, a lovely panel of dye-transfer experiments by Edward Steichen that almost qualify as a sort of ancient ur-Photoshoppery. I suppose it helps that there was a whole lot of stuff I'd never seen before, always a plus for me. Lisa S. pointed out as one of her favorites a modest display of 1930s color advertisements shown alongside the same pictures printed in vintage magazines; those are exquisite.
There are several slide shows (Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, also Nan Goldin) that I thought were less successful. Too much ambient light; the pictures didn't pop. But then, I've never cared for slide shows much. (Lisa did mention that some younger visitors to the show had never seen a slide projector before.)
My biggest complaint about the show, though, was that it was over too quickly. My heart fell when I saw the exit door. I could have gone on half as long again and continued to be just as happy. Come to think of it, though, I skipped the Nan Goldin slide show at the end, which was curtained off because of risqué content. (I was the only one of the four of us who hadn't seen the show already, and I didn't want to make Chris, Lisa, and Ken wait for me. I'll go back.) So maybe that would beef up the ending of the show and serve to extend the experience a bit.
By the way, I really liked Lisa Sutcliffe. I thought even her off-the-cuff comments about the work were insightful and incisive, yet she has a relaxed, completely unpretentious manner that's like clear water. Lisa Hostetler, as I've mentioned before, is a tough act to follow. (Her "Street Scene" show was also wonderful.) But I'm really looking forward to seeing what Lisa Sutcliffe will do with her own shows at the Art Museum; can't wait, in fact.
Very unfortunately, "Color Rush" is not traveling. It'll open and close in Milwaukee, and then that's all she wrote. You have until May 19th if you want to see it. Very fortunately, though, there's a book. I didn't even flip through it (and I didn't buy it this visit because it was raining and I didn't want to carry it home in the rain), so I can't tell you much about it as a book, but the show itself is so good I feel pretty comfortable pointing people to the book as a record of it. The first printing is almost gone but a second printing is going to be available from Amazon starting later this month (and can be pre-ordered now).
A must-see show? If you're within easy shooting distance of Milwaukee, we're in no-brainer territory—make it a point. Worth a drive from as far away as Chicago? There aren't many things in Milwaukee you can say this about for Chicagoans, but I'd say yes on that score too. And I'll go out on a limb and say it's worth the drive even for people whose primary interest in art isn't necessarily photography. Highly recommended.
(Thanks to Ken Tanaka and Lisa Sutcliffe)
Ken Tanaka adds: Hey, I had a terrific day, too.
I am glad that Gary mentioned the 2010 show (and catalog) titled Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980. Although I did not see the show I do have Kevin Moore's excellent book.
"Color Rush" is a broader and deeper view of color photography. The show, and book, are organized into four chronological sections beginning with the 1930s (Steiglitz, Steichen, National Geographic, etc.) and ending with "An Explosion of Color"—the 1980s. The book features two excellent overview essays by Hosteler and Bussard. But the majority of the 270+ pg. book is devoted to individual photographers, each with a short essay and plates of their work. Aperture did an outstanding job with this project. @ Rob Atkins: You've been misinformed. ;~)
Pete Turner, as featured in "Color Rush"
It is a shame that relatively few folks will actually see the show. It was 5+ years in the making and a real product of scholarship and passion by many people. But thankfully the book will live on. It's a must-have for anyone with a serious interest in the history of color photography.
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Featured Comments from:
John Krumm (partial comment): "...I'm left wondering if museums are going to keep ending photography shows sometime before digital starts, kind of like that's when photography died. Do they even collect digital photography prints?"
Mike replies: Well, it ends c. 1981-2, when color had solidly entered the accepted mainstream of publishing and art. Digital didn't really get going until well after that, the mid-to-late '90s; the first show of "giclée prints," as they were called then, that I saw was in '98 or '99, and I sought it out on purpose. The digital transition is a bigger story than should be tacked on to the end of a coherent and cohesive overview exhibit like this one.
Rob Atkins: "All sounds great; I wish I could see the show. But no inclusion of Pete Turner, a true innovator of color? Pete was a great promoter as well, running a gallery, The Space, beside his Carnegie Hall studio. An overview of color photography is incomplete without including P.T."
Lisa Sutcliffe replies: Pete Turner is included in Color Rush.
Geoff Wittig: "I'm quite jealous. Living near George Eastman House, I'm used to being spoiled by fabulous photography exhibits in my own backyard. Unfortunately, despite being entirely separate from Eastman Kodak Co., Eastman House has suffered mightily from both the disappearance of corporate support and a serious hit to their endowment in the late economic unpleasantness of 2008. Hence their recent exhibition history has been less than stellar. Currently they're showing a very low-key bit on the camera obscura, an exhibition cadged from their camera warehouse that has been collecting dust in one of their three main galleries since 2005(?!?), and a set of huge but technically awful gelatin silver prints made by using a cargo container as a giant camera. Sigh. I miss the good ol' days."