Thursday, August 02, 2007

Contemporary American Colour Photography


Or should that be Contemporary American Color Photography?

One slightly recurring comment I've had about my Traces project is that some people wish I had done it in colour.


(top two pictures from immersive landscapes)

I'll admit there are few pictures in it that might have worked quite well in colour (though to my mind, rather obviously so - close to the old National Geographic "put a red jacket in the scene" thing) - bright orange utility flags, left behind Christmas Lights, dahlias against a chain-link fence etc.

Though in the end I also came to see that most of what I wanted to do - how I saw it and how I wanted to show it - depended much more on black and white.

In fact at the start of the project I went through some of my usual schizophrenia - colour or b&w? colour or b&w (in fact on a previous project I used both side by side for some time before deciding). But in the end I felt that many of the colour pictures would end up looking like any one of the dozens and dozens of other urban explorations (many of them quite excellent btw) that I come across almost every day online or in print.

So when I read something Christian Patterson said the other day, it really struck a chord, He picks up on an earlier analogy of his (often used in depicting the history of art) of the history of photography as a tree:


It is my belief that most contemporary American color photographers are not only working with a medium, but they are also working within a tradition, or a way of seeing...

...So what part of the tree is contemporary American color photography? I am beginning to think that it is really only a branch.
And what part of the tree is most contemporary color photography? I am beginning to think that it is really only a twig...

...I am writing this for a number of reasons, one of which is the overwhelming current practice and art-world presence of what I can only describe as “straight” contemporary American color photography. Most photographers working in this genre are pursuing aesthetics and concerns that were initiated in the 1970s, and have changed very little over the past thirty years. Different photographers incorporate different approaches, and embrace or abandon concept and/or narrative to varying degrees,
but aside from subject matter, there is often little else that distinguishes the work. The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree...

(My emphases above. read the whole thing here)

As Christian says; "I include myself and some of my own work in this assessment." and so do I. Many years ago I became seduced by the New Color work. First it's British offshoot - Graham and Parr and Waplington. The the likes of Shore and Sternfeld and Eggleston and then the Continental brand - Struth and Gursky and Essers and so on to the many of practitioners today - totally captivated and enthralled. And I'm still thrilled by it, when I see good new work or re-visit the old (and in this context, this stuff is barely as "old" as I am... which may in itself be significant?). But Christian's point clarified something I had been mulling over for some time - "Most photographers working in this genre are pursuing aesthetics and concerns that were initiated in the 1970s, and have changed very little over the past thirty years."

Which in the end was one reason (though not the only one, and probably not the main one) why, in the end, I decided to do Traces in black and white.


10 comments:

Federico said...

I don't normally shoot in colour but when I do, I sometimes make the photoshop exercise of converting the result to black and white to see what it would have looked like. And I have confirmed previous suspicions (as years go by, I think one develops a certain sensitivity toward this) that this picture here o that picture there works much better in grayscale.

I think that's the case in the pair you show us above. It looks OK in colour, but it's quite better in b&w. I imagine that the inverse sometimes holds too. I can think of some Shores and most Egglestons and Parrs to suffer from translation to black and white.

Eric Fredine said...

I find myself quite captivated by the traces work. Alleys are indeed a defining characteristic of the city we share.

I think because these photographs are in B&W they feel more modest and honest - which seems appropriate for these modest spaces. My eye is allowed to explore the forms and how they interact with each other without having to deal with a riot of colour.

I've never seriously tried to photograph in B&W but have found myself musing about it lately. And I've also found myself thinking quite a bit about exactly the observations you've made in this post. Bit weird actually. Must be something in the air.

iain said...

I think photographers have to choose the materials and techniques that are most appropriate to the kind of pictures they are making.
The consideration of B&W or colour is simply part of this (although they are not the only two choices available - see Boris Mikhailov's hand coloured photos, for example). As an abstract argument, BW v colour ends up going nowhere.

tim atherton said...

iain,

I don't think that's quite what this post is about.

When Patterson says:

It is my belief that most contemporary American color photographers are not only working with a medium, but they are also working within a tradition, or a way of seeing.

It's not just about choosing which is more appropriate for the kinds of pictures you are making - a simple aesthetic choice, but it's rather bigger than that and has greater implications.

(One being that if you chose colour, and are essentially working in the style he calls Contemporary American Colour Photography, then you've picked something that may have reached something of a dead end and has potentially become rather stultified and stylized).

Federico said...

That's an interesting implication Tim, the first half of which ("dead end") I tend to agree. I still am captivated with that style of photography, though, and I like and enjoy Chris Patterson's work, even if it's not (and cannot be, if we accept the 'dead end' notion) groundbreaking, as was Eggleston's in his time, or even today when looked in retrospect...

I wonder what Chris thinks about this. And if he finds this sort of dead end ("the nut doesn't fall far from the tree," he writes) troubling and/or artistically limitating.

Bee said...

The solution to 'working within a tradition' can hardly be going back a step further yet. Never mind the 70s, here's the 50s?

The 1850's??

I mean, speaking of tradition, you know...

Julian said...

I'm with Bee on this, if you want to avoid a tradition, merely choosing BW over colour isn't going to do it, as this is only part of the aesthetic decisions you are making. The language you use has more to do with how you manipulate the objects you point your camera at and the way you develop your theme.
I also think it is a deadend in itself to try and avoid a tradition. Do your stuff with a huge dose of integrity and your work falls within whatever tradition it falls within. To say 'now I'm going to be 'original' ' is a aure sign that you've lost touch with your work IMO. Very nice series though!

tim atherton said...

The solution to 'working within a tradition' can hardly be going back a step further yet.

the problem isn't "working within a tradtion"

But either way, what's wrong with the 1850's...?

tim atherton said...

I'm with Bee on this, if you want to avoid a tradition, merely choosing BW over colour isn't going to do it, as this is only part of the aesthetic decisions you are making. The language you use has more to do with how you manipulate the objects you point your camera at and the way you develop your theme.

Oh absolutely - but the problem wasn't with "avoiding a tradition" (I think it's not too hard for anyone to figure out what a good chunk of the traditions that say you or I or Bee are working from or using as our sources).

It was about not quite being aware that you either were working within a pretty well defined tradition, or more, not really being aware of where that tradition stands right now (hey it's New Color how can it be a tradition yet - it's new and fresh and exciting... I think)

Do your stuff with a huge dose of integrity and your work falls within whatever tradition it falls within. To say 'now I'm going to be 'original' ' is a sure sign that you've lost touch with your work IMO.

Again, absolutely - I think we've agreed on that many times before. But as trying to avoid tradition wasn't really the issue, the need to be uniquely original and trying to somehow stand outside tradition isn't an issue either

Davin said...

I'm never really sure if these artistic "traditions" are that in practice or more so the creation of curatorial, critical, and market forces. There is a drive among those who contextualize and sometimes profit from art to make it a bit more tidy by packaging it into trends and traditions.

The "New Color" kind of reeks of this. It's not that I don't respect art history (and certainly not critical thinking around artistic disciplines) but there is often too much said about the movements and too many heroes born of them. I have huge respect for Eggleston, Shore, etc. but I'm not so sure there's a need to have their work in mind when doing one's own art. Or, to be more general, to place your work within a tradition while it's in practice. That seems like making art for a market or for a critical audience.

It seems like, in your work, your decisions regarding format have more to do with your process and not where those images possibly branch off.

Sorry, very half-formed thoughts on all this. My theoretical muscles are very weak.