Un/Natural Color At SBMA Through Sept. 29

Un/Natural Color, an exhibition of color photography from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s (SBMA) permanent collection, illustrates the history of color photography since the 19th century and examines how the shifted or faded colors of old photographs can evoke moments in the historical past.

Responding to the widespread use of nostalgic filters in popular photography and social mediaapps, such as Instagram and Twitter, this presentation enables visitors to see first-hand the historical processes that inspired the aesthetics of these digital manipulations. Despite their reputation for preserving memories andstopping time, photographs themselves are susceptible to material changes over time. These changes are often most visible in the radical color shifts seen in old photographs, from the characteristic pink hue of snapshots from the 1950s to the yellowed borders and cool cast of prints from the 1970s. These changes also serve to complicate any simple belief in the ability of photography tofaithfully represent the natural colors of the world.

While the exhibition includes a number of experimental early processes, including the chromolithographically-derived Photochrom process as well as an early Autochrome, the bulk of the imagery is drawn from the decades following the pivotal invention of Kodachrome, the first color slide film, which was made commercially available in 1936. Because this film, as well as Kodacolor negative film (1942), was sent back to Eastman-Kodak for processing, photographers’ control over their imagery was greatly reduced, leading many art photographers to resist the transition to color until decades later.

Un/Natural Color includes rarely-seen color work by two notable documentary photographers of the Depression era, Jack Delano and Marion Post Wolcott. Both worked for the Farm Security Administration (a government program associated with the New Deal) and madelimited use of color film while on assignment documenting the effects of the Great Depression on rural American. Very few (if any) of these images were reproduced in the popular press, however, owing to the difficulty and cost of reproducing color photographs, and to color photography’s overwhelming association with commercial advertising at this time (as in Elmar Ludwig and Edmund Nagele’s image of the popular resort chain, Butlin’s).

The art establishment at large expressed little interest in color photography until the mid-1970s, following the inclusion of color work in two groundbreaking exhibitions: Stephen Shore’s vernacular landscapes in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY (1975) and the solo exhibition of William Eggleston’s color photography at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (1976). Both of these important photographers are represented in Un/Natural Color, as well as work by photographers exploring similar uses of color to record everyday American scenes, including Jeff Brouws, Jim Dow, and Joel Meyerowitz.

Prior to the 1970s, some tentative forays into color photography were made by art photographers primarily known for their work in black-and-white (notably Harry Callahan), but color was more often derided for its populist associations and was typically allied with either snapshot photography or advertising and Hollywood. The negative connotation that color photography had acquired over the years in the art world was critical to its adoption by photographers like Shore and Eggleston, who used it to challenge conventional expectations forphotographic art and to force viewers to look with new eyes at the familiarworld around them.

An image such as Greg Noll Surf Team at Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, Sunset Beach by Leroy Grannis highlights the powerful ability of color photography to summon a unique historical moment. It is not just the classic haircut and short surf trunks sported by the surf legend, Greg Noll, that situates this photograph in the 1960s. Color photography at thistime typically recorded color in a highly saturated, though fairly uniform manner, leaving some aspects of this photograph looking flat, rather than mimicking the subtle modulation of tone that is more commonly associated with the perception of depth by human vision.

The characteristic manner by which different color processes represent the colors of the world, as well as the changes that such color photographs suffer over time, are powerful indicators of the photograph’s history. When we look at color photographs, all of these markers are brought to bear on our interpretation of their subjects, leading us to question: what is natural color anyway?

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a privately funded, not-for-profit institution that presents internationally recognizedcollections and exhibitions and a broad array of cultural and educational activities as well as travel opportunities around the world.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA.
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