Resisting Color Photography

Elizabeth Olson comments (in a New York Times article today) on an exhibition opening this week at the Library of Congress, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-1943.  The exhibition is "[c]ulled from a collection of little-known color images made by photographers from the federal Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, the prints bring alive everyday rural life between 1939 and 1943."

The images were made "by about a dozen photographers to document the Depression’s effects on rural America and to rally support for government relief efforts".  So the function of these images was clearly documentary (historical) and political.

According to Olson, the photos have been in the collection of the LoC since 1946, but have "received little attention".

What struck me as odd was a remark made by the curator, Beverly Brannan: "There were questions for years about whether color photography was truly art," she said. "They were not taken as seriously as black-and-white images." In the context of the Times article, this appears to be offered as an explanation for not exhibiting these photographs.

It’s well-known that the status of color photography as art was contested for years.  "Elder statesmen of photography such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen initially described color photographs as lurid and vulgar, while others associated them unfavorably with commercial photography, amateur snapshots, or popular movies." (See the introduction to the current exhibition of color photography at the Philadelphia Museum, Mavericks of Color Photography from the Collection July 30 – November 27, 2005.)

But it seems to me that the artistic (and, by implication, aesthetic) status of an image is distinct from its historical value. Does the LoC really make such aesthetic judgments in choosing objects for an exhibition? Does anxiety over the status of photography vis a vis "the fine arts" extend to the LoC?

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