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colour

October 2, 2008

© Anne Turyn, 12-17-1960, from 'Flashbulb Memories' (1986)

“Colour expands a photograph’s palette and adds a new level of descriptive information and transparency to the image. It is more transparent because one is stopped less by the surface – colour is more like how we see. It has added description because it shows the colour of light and the colours of a culture or an age. While made in the 1980s, the palette of this image by Anne Turyn seems to date the picture a generation earlier.”

From ‘The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore (Phaidon 2007) p.18.

***

Yet, while I was recently watching The Genius of Photography (Episode 4) it came as a pleasant surprise to hear how William Eggleston was described as unreadable. This is the photographer of course, who brought serious colour photography into the mainstream art world (see for example a review by Photo Book Guide).

Eggleston’s pictures, the narrator in the BBC programme argues, “contained all the acute observations of a master street photographer like Winogrand, but their brightly coloured surfaces make them as unreadable as Ed Bouche’s gas stations. Eggleston, a man of few words, has called his pictures democratic, adding he is at war with the obvious.”

***

Some of the subtle meanings contained in these sentences, and ideas about the uses of colour, were revealed in what followed, a dialogue between John Gossage and Martin Parr while they were driving around Memphis:

“JG: He took colour at face value. Bill said, if I just make the colour a higher key, the structure in the picture cannot work… and still do realistic subject-matter, still do the real world.

MP: Do you think that he is literally saying that to himself?

JG: Yeah.. I mean he extrapolated the whole idea… If pictures need to be structured, how does one structure a colour picture because colour is more dominant.. One little red stop-light up there (pointing to the traffic lights) trumps this whole large volume area of green

© William Eggleston, from 'William Eggleston's Guide' (MoMA 1976)

There is one of a shower stall, there would be absolutely nothing. It’s sort of this bilious green.. and a dreadful pink.. and it’s shot in flash.. and it feels.. because of the colour.. like it’s a shower in Auschwitz or something… It is some Holiday Inn somewhere.. I mean, the colour being able to twist the whole content…

MP: Psychological colour

JG: Yeah..”

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