Friday, July 16, 2010

Provenance: Collecting Color Photography

If you've ever collected photographs, provenance is a word you're familiar with; and like Provence, the region of France, its roots are French and Latin:

the place of origin or earliest known history of something : an orange rug of Iranian provenance.
• the beginning of something's existence; something's origin : they try to understand the whole universe, its provenance and fate.
See note at origin .
• a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality : the manuscript has a distinguished provenance.
ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from French, from the verb provenir ‘come or stem from,’ from Latin provenire, from pro- ‘forth’ + venire ‘come.’

There is a dividing line in collectible photography, and it falls neatly between black-and-white and color photography.  Or did.  Photographers William Eggleston and Andreas Gursky have, for years, defined the polar extremes of collectible color.  It is not hard to express the dismay and disdain that this Wikipedia entry for Eggleston elicits from many modern color photographers: He is widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries.

Gursky, whose prints have sold in millions of dollars, is no less polarizing for his detailed yet  dispassionate images of supermarkets, buildings and stock exchanges. 

Until recently, few collectors have collected color prints, mainly because of one issue—impermanence.  Eggleston's prints have been made, for the most part, on Type-C paper, or dye transfer, both of which are susceptible to fading.  Gursky has also chosen Type-C materials though the Fuji paper he uses is far less prone to fading than earlier materials.

With the publication in January of 2006 of Saul Leiter's Early Color, the collecting of color photography has gone mainstream.  Edward Steichen exhibited some of Leiter's color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, but it is only recently that his work has been rediscovered; and as a result, this book is already in its second printing.  As well, the appearance of Ross Periodicals' new magazine COLOR, signals a sea change in the acceptance of color.  There may always be a disconnect between the consensus of photographers and the consensus of galleries and collectors as to what constitutes great color imagery.  Stephen Wilkes' beautiful recent book, Ellis Island, and the work of his contemporaries, such as photographers Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, are bridges between the present and the gallery world where color imagery, to be accepted, must have a purpose or a meaning.  The art world has long embraced color for color's sake, such as in the paintings of Mark Rothko or Kenneth Noland.  

Yet even that is changing, with the advent of exhibitions such as the upcoming (September 16, 2010 - October 23, 2010) exhibit Beyond COLOR: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970 at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, which will feature works by contemporary masters such as Ernst Haas, Pete Turner and Eliot Porter.


  1. I think Harry Callahan aided color photography's acceptance also. Here was a photographer, know as a master of black and white, who in the late 80s came 'out of the closet' (or darkroom) and presented a body of color work he had been making for years. His book New Color was published in 1988.

    As for Eliot Porter, his cloud images, printed as small, 6x6 dye-transfers, are sumptuous.

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