The art of photojournalism, in color
On the Line: The New Color Photojournalism, by Adam D. Weinberg, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center. Distributed by the University of Pennsylvania Press. 42 color plates. 80 pp. $29.95. Ninety-seven percent of the film used in the United States is color film. Yet color photography has only recently begun to penetrate the museums and galleries. Very few colleges teach color, and those that do would be loath to teach color photography before grounding a student in the aesthetics of black and white. In its pursuit of acceptance, serious photography - that which aspires to the intellectual weight of painting - has shunned the ubiquitous color print.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Indeed, documentary photography and photojournalism remained black and white well beyond the technical necessity to do so.
The anti-intellectualism that has shadowed all photography from its inception fuels the prejudice against color photography. A few art photographers have worked in color, but they have not been able to vitiate the triple charge that color is the stuff of amateurs, that it is merely decorative, and that its long association with advertising has played out its potential. In brief, color is thought to be facile and illusory.
It is not surprising, then, that the new color photojournalists were trained in black-and-white processes. Yet like their generational peers in art and literature, these postwar photographers move easily across the putative border of high art and popular culture. They came of age with reliable color film (and color television). Although most continue to work in black and white, they find a strict allegiance to black-and-white photography to be pedantic and exasperating.
Jean-Marie Simon, one of the photographers represented in this book, puts it matter-of-factly: ``I don't see in black and white. I see in color.''
The new color photojournalists work ``on the line,'' as Adam Weinberg's essay makes clear. Like photojournalists since Mathew Brady, their work occupies that broad middle ground between news reporting and art.
Because they work in color, their photographs are also poised between the gravity of the traditional black-and-white documentary subject and the pure sense appeal of chromatic display.
The international photojournalists represented in this collection are not rebels. In fact, the absence of ideological consistency demonstrates how the use of color is more a matter of generational experience than po litical posture. Most of the new color photojournalists work or have worked for large photographic agencies like Magnum and Gamma-Liaison. They are united in their attempt to develop a fluency in color, and in their determination not to let the beautiful print overpower content. Nevertheless, they offer a diversity of rationales and methods.
David Burnett, whose work has appeared in Time, Life, and GEO, admits that ``color can sap a picture instead of add things to it.'' By shooting at night under artificial lights, Burnett turns the color down in his series on small-town baseball teams. Rio Branco, who is also a filmmaker, states that ``when color is just seen as a tool for formal intentions in a dramatic situation, it can be obscene, useless.'' He lets color unite the picture's surface but not dictate its subject. Gilles Peress and Alex Webb are attracted to deeply saturated, even garish color. Both insist that the intensity of subject matter must equal the intensity of color.
Happily, the book ranges beyond the center of photojournalistic practice. It includes Harry Gruyaert's passive pictures, which seem to exist only by virtue of color, and the discomforting voyeurism of Michel Folco, whose series on crime in Houston suggests that he is heir to the acidic light and aggressive stance of the legendary Weegee.
Edward Weston, whose black-and-white photographs sighed with pleasurable awareness of form and tone, began using color film toward the end of his career. He observed: ``You find few subjects that can be expressed in either color or black and white.''
``The two do not compete with each other,'' he wrote. ``They are different means to different ends.'' The new color photojournalists challenge Weston, charging deep into the historical alliance of black-and-white photography and documentary work.
More fundamentally, these photographers question the notion that color in photography serves only the disinterested enjoyment of the aesthete or casual hobbyist. In so doing, they help to validate all color work, including that of the amateur. The long-term effect of the new color photojournalism may just be to bring into focus the showdown between the professional and the amateur that the new automatic cameras and reliable color film presage.