Most movies are in color; TV is in color, so today are passport photos, mug shots, snapshots, ads. Given color's victories, "Color as Form: A History of Color Photography," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, ought to ring with triumph. Instead it clanks and fizzes. Old doubts smudge the victories of this scholarly and messy, vast and useful show.
Its technologies are curious, its rarities are many, but its pictures, seen together, tend to disappoint. Many are experiments--it opens with a dim, largely purple landscape made, perhaps by accident, by the Rev. Levi Hill in 1851. Like many other artists here he was not sure what he was doing. This slightly vulgar show is full of early ads, news shots, snapshots, jokes. "Color as Form" was picked by photographer and teacher John Upton for the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y. Despite its irritations, his show is well worth seeing. No survey so complete has been organized before.
L.J.M. Daguerre himself, who long ago apologized because his wonderful invention could not show nature's colors, might have viewed these Pinatypes, Flexichromes and Kodachromes, Carbro prints, dye transfer prints, and instant SX-70s as miracles of progress. It is true their sunsets flare, their reds are often bright. Yet photography in black and white has yet to be defeated by pictures of the sort included in this show.
A strange, chromatic chaos nibbles at this exhibit. Because photographic color frequently is fugitive, many of the colors here seem a little off. The neon tubes we see in Arthur Siegel's "Drycleaners" of 1946 may once have glowed as brightly as they did in life, but they now are pale pink. Edward Steichen's 1935 portrait of Colette might have looked fine then, but now it suggests jaundice. Cookies here look gray, flesh is sometimes green. Before such swimming colors, one feels slightly sick.
This show has other defects. Many of its printed colors, compared with the light-bright hues of TV screens or movies, look dim. And color cannot camouflage deficiencies in content. A dull advertising photograph that shows, say, a red hat, is not saved from dullness because it is in color. And yet another problem, one perhaps more subtle, undercuts this show.
The painter makes his color; the photographer must find it. While photographs in black and white may be read as abstractions, many photographs in color look less like works of art than they do like images ripped from real life. Here we see how often that has placed the artist at a distinct disadvantage. Photographs, of course, are artist-mediated objects. Someone partly present, the sensed-but-unseen artist, cropped, composed and chose it. Many famous artists not yet widely known for their work in color--Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen, Walker Evans and a dozen more--made pictures that we see here, yet their presence seems diluted. It may well be more difficult to recognize the artist in color photographs than in black and white.
Would Paul Outerbridge Jr.'s nude "Woman With Snake" (1938) be as nicely kinky, or lose some of its strangeness, were it black and white? What, if anything, does color add to Harold Edgerton's stop-motion 1964 photo of a bullet slicing through a playing card? Such questions, all debatable, are regularly revived by this problematic show.
Color photographs are no more free of cliche's than are other types of art. Too many artists here lean on color accents: Walker Evans, for example, shoots a bright red poster on a dull gray wall; other photos here depend for all their oomph on pink houses or parrots, red berets or flowers.
The exhibit takes its title from a 1953 quote from Edward Weston: "The prejudice many photographers have against color photography comes from not thinking of color as form. You can say things in color that can't be said in black and white . . . Many subjects I photographed would be meaningless in black and white; the separation of forms is possible only because of the juxtaposition of colors."
Yet only in the past few years have a few photographers convincingly controlled pure color as color. William Eggleston's "Red Ceiling" (1971) or "5 Demopolis, Alabama" (1978) by Washington's William Christenberry are works in which color suggests signature. Joel Sternfeld's "McLean, Va." (1978), a shot in which a fireman shops patiently for pumpkins while a house burns in the background, is another first-rate photograph that would have made no sense if shot in black and white.
Instructive as it is, "Color as Form" seems an undigested show. Because it aims for completeness, its omissions seem peculiar (where are Louis Faurer or Henri Lartigue?). And Upton's little catalogue is relatively useless. Color may someday demolish black and white--it is already happening in TV and the movies--but in still photography it hasn't happened yet. "Color as Form" will travel to Rochester after closing here June 6.