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Vol. LXIV, No. 36
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
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Color Photography’s Expansion of the Medium Showcased in Princeton Art Museum’s “Starburst”

Dilshanie Perera

On view for only a few weeks more, “Starburst,” the color photography exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, offers visitors a look into the new direction American photography took in the 1970s.

Once thought to be outside the domain of “real” art, color photography was heralded as an artistic medium by the 18 artists featured in the exhibition.

Curator of Photography at the Museum Joel Smith noted that “color’s equanimity gave artists a way to explore the ambivalent mood of a decade trailing the heels of the sixties: an era of collapsed ideals, disappointed hopes, upended social values, and unsettled sexual politics.”

The show is organized by artist, with some recurring as the visitor walks through the galleries. It begins in the museum’s main space with a “prologue,” a wall containing the black and white works of the photographic precursors to the “New Color Photography” movement. Included in the visual introduction are pictures taken by Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Aaron Siskind, and Dorothea Lange.

While some of the works in the exhibit display an abstract, painterly quality, others are remarkable for their conceptual appeal, and all of the pieces showcase the different directions the medium of color photography was taken by the various artists.

The semi-abstract photographs taken by Jan Groover show off kitchen utensils — including forks, pots, and green peppers — in all of their sculptural elegance.

Cyanotypes and photograms of cloth on light-sensitive paper by Barbara Kasten from 1975 create a visual imprint of texture. Her “Construct Series” appears alongside the cyanotypes. In making it, she describes herself as being “really more concerned with the shapes and forms, and the reflection and refraction of light; but it seemed as though if it were red, it was better. The brighter, the better. The more color, the better.”

With a nod to color photography’s already robust life in printed media, glossy advertisements, and other paper ephemera, Robert Heinecken’s “Reconfigured Magazines” from 1969-1971 displays his re-imagined versions of popular magazines, juxtaposing ads and photojournalism with violent or sexual imagery. During the project, he would occasionally return some of the magazines to the newsstand.

Likewise, Stephen Shore embarked on a project in 1971 in Amarillo, Texas that involved photographing various locations around town and getting them commercially printed into postcards. When none sold, he snuck around to tourist shops in the area, slipping them into the postcard carousels.

Neal Slavin began his series of “Group Portraits of American Organizations” in 1973, including the International Twins Association meeting in Muncie, Indiana; the Lloyd Rod and Gun Club of Highland, New York; and the Star Trek Conventioneers in Brooklyn in 1976, among others.

The last exhibition space displays a sample of the “legacy” of the color photographers, that is, work by artists from the 1990s, that serves as a bookend to the visual historical look into the medium.

Also included in the exhibition is the work of: Joel Sternfeld, Mitch Epstein, Joel Meyerowitz, Helen Levitt, Les Krims, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Richard Misrach, John Divola, John Pfahl, Eve Sonneman, Harry Callahan, and Leo Rubinfien.

Curated by former Princeton graduate student Kevin Moore, the exhibition was organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it first opened in February.

“Starburst: Color Photography in America, 1970-1980” is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum until September 26. Visit or call (609) 258-3788 for more information.

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