Robert Hirsch


Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970–1980.
Edited and text by Kevin Moore, essays by James Crump and Leo Rubinfien, (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2010, 276 pages), $75 hb.

Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

The lyrics to “Star Light, Star Bright,” an American nineteenth century rhyme, alludes to the fantasy of wishing on a star. According to Kevin Moore, an independent curator who organized the Starburst exhibition and its catalog with Dr. James Crump, curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, “Color photography of the 1970s happened in a starburst.” Well, maybe not quite. The acceptance of High Art color photography was due to a timely convergence of aesthetic, conceptual, and technical issues. Nevertheless, Starburst presents and examines the work of the familiar American photographers of that era, such as William Eggleston, Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, along with William Christenberry, John Divola, Mitch Epstein, Jan Groover, Robert Heinecken, Barbara Kasten, Les Krims, Richard Misrach, John Pfahl, Neal Slavin, Joel Sternfeld, Eve Sonneman, among others, in a most thoughtful and comprehensible fashion. I highly recommend it as a salient overview and analysis about what was happening in the United States during this era.

So what does that leave me to wish for? I want to use my star wish to see a broad re-examination of this period that includes the experimental approaches to color photography, which have been continually ignored because they do not fit into the model established by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which has become the standard, unquestioned history. Of the work covered, only Heinecken’s sardonically disruptive images, a product of the 1960s, truly contradict this “made in the camera” visual code exemplified by the work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston.

Shore’s formal, smartly vague, and boringly detached work, predicated on his experiences at Andy Warhol’s Factory, helped establish a set of aesthetic principles that would play a role in defining the High Art color work of the 1970s. In a nutshell, we went from Jimi Hendrix to the Bee Gees.

The nonconformist experiments of the 1960s were pushed into the ditch to accommodate the arrival of Szarkowski’s MoMA presentation of William Eggleston’s Guide (1976) of bland Southern apathy and decay.* These are not sixteenth century Dutch genre moments; the most startling thing about these mundane images is their super-saturated, dye transfer printing, which only an artist having a show at MoMA could afford to have made. Most of the photographs are so ordinary and passive that it is difficult to give them a larger cultural meaning, which may have appealed to Szarkowski’s well-articulated notion of democratic perfection — the ideal that the images could be whatever you wanted them to be. Many first viewers of Eggleston’s work found them to be insular, remote, and uninspiring; only professional art critics engaged them and like most, Hilton Kramer dismissed them as “perfectly banal.” Nevertheless, this ambiguous work, which had nothing definite to say, became indicative of what key venues would embrace for years to come at the expense of other ways of seeing.

Why moan about it now? In effect, Szarkowski’s star-making imprimatur created a McDonald’s franchise of photography, a brand if you will, which other institutions bought into, and savvy practitioners made entrees that catered to their menu. Soon there were Szarkowski chains of self-styled authentic, direct, vernacular-based photography across America, served up at the convenience of artistic and intellectual autonomy.

In theory people involved in the arts clamor about the importance of originality, but in reality the indicator as to whether any work is likely to be funded, promoted, discussed or endorsed usually comes down to how familiar it is. Major galleries, museums, publications, and art schools nurture pedigree — a certification of predictable and marketable work that protects everyone’s hipness and investments. As in the rest of the world, M-O-N-E-Y is a driving force in the arts. For each individual involved in making a new experimental work there are likely a hundred more involved in administering, selling, and reproducing established works in order to avoid the unreliable, trial and error process of creation.

Fast-forward. The fallout of such protectionism has resulted in a market of blinkered uniformity in which the same self-referential artists are rotated through an incestuous system. For instance, how many more books on Walker Evans or Andy Warhol can the franchise crank out? Barring a major find, what is left to say?

Just think how different the face of photography would be today if Szarkowski had anointed Heinecken’s multi-layered, mixed media, pornographic-based work instead of Eggleston’s straightforward, seemingly colloquial photographs? Of course such a wish would take an exploding supernova to bring about because Heinecken’s work would have offended (and still would) too many people, both in its content and execution, which would have been bad for business built on product regularity.

The Starburst exhibition also chose not to include synthetic color works by artists now largely forgotten such as Syl Labrot or Todd Walker, even though this was an area of exploration during the 1970s. Nor did they present Heinecken’s much more controversial work such as Cliché Vary Fetishism (1974). I presume the latter was left out because they did not want a repeat of the Robert Mapplethorpe show of 1990 in which the Cincinnati Art Museum director was brought to trial on charges of obscenity for displaying sexually explicit photographs. (He was acquitted.)

The long-term result of this cultural battle over who and what gets presented to the mainline public is that instead of gazing at complex, adult issues of sexuality we get to contemplate the inside of an empty kitchen oven (oh, how existential).

The franchise insures that just about everything you see in established centers of art will resemble what is also being shown down the street. If you really want to experience what is happening on the edge of photographic practice you must look to the Underground for a sensibility not entirely based on market forces. Where are such places? Some can be found in not-for-profit spaces and collectives, such as CEPA Gallery and Light Work; others online, like Tumbler; and in small, loose groups such as ƒ295. This is where innovative artists go to find and make the Good Stuff that informs the future of photographic practice.

Starburst offers a first-rate foothold into the establishment version of color photography during the 1970s. However, much research, analysis, and publication remains to be done regarding what other artists were making during this period, which may someday herald an expanded rethinking of what constitutes photo-based color practice. Stars willing, of course.

NOTES *MoMA had exhibited color photography previously, notably Edward Steichen’s “All-Color Photography; Fifty-one American Photographers” in 1950.

© Robert Hirsch

Editor’s Note: I heartily agree with Robert that there is a vital alternative history of color photography to be written, as well as other alternative histories of the era in which the tastes of John Szarkowski and the imprimatur of the Museum of Modern Art dictated much of went into the contemporary canon at that time.

However, I don’t want Robert’s praise for what Starburst is to be lost amidst his discussion of what it is not. Both the book and the exhibition, which I saw at the Princeton University Art Museum, are exemplary presentations of bodies of work that challenged the hegemony of blackand- white realism and that have had an enormous influence on the course of contemporary photography, and, for the most part, that have come to be appreciated as serious works of art deserving of their places in the history of photography.

Stephen Perloff