Color photography. The way we live now

American Independents: Eighteen Color Photographers, by Sally Eauclaire. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987. 248 pp. 163 color plates. $45. THE photographers Sally Eauclaire chronicles in her new book are plain-speaking rebels, Huck Finns refusing to be ``sivilized.'' No wonder so many of them head west and north, to California, to Texas, and to Alaska, the last American frontier. Out there, or in the city streets, these photographers have been rethinking their instrument.

Color photography is not just tinted black-and-white. Muted, it sighs into pussycat-and-sunset sentimentality. At its higher ranges, color photography squeals, an aesthetic yelp. But out there, photojournalists and artists working in color have been retuning, figuring out how to avoid excess and mawkishness.

``American Independents'' includes recent work by Joel Sternfeld, who has quickly emerged as a virtuoso. Like that archetypal American runaway, Huck Finn, Joel Sternfeld keeps his kit bag near at hand. Since 1978, he has been traveling the US in a Volkswagen camper. A city kid, a baby-boomer, a two-time Guggenheim recipient, Sternfeld renders geographic points of contact between the natural and the social landscapes. He works the way John Updike might - with abundant sympathy for banality and self-delusion.

In his photographs of ``Alaska at 25,'' clouds above Matanuska Glacier are sliced by telephone and electrical lines; a dirt road cuts through a gateway of fuchsia wildflowers recently labeled with a sign for ``Majestic View Estates''; board-and-batten condominiums inhabited by two-seaplane families crowd a small inlet in suburban Anchorage.

These would be cheap shots in lesser hands. But Sternfeld, whose retrospective exhibit will be in Houston, Detroit, and Baltimore beginning this summer, does not rush to wag his finger at our foibles. His lambent late afternoon world view and his palette are forbearing, even meliorative. He takes things as they come: the next town on a blue highway.

It is as if color photographers were again taking seriously the medium's charge to make seeing voluntary, to still reality's restless surfaces. The veteran colorists in this collection, Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston, salvage sights that have slipped beneath our recognition. Eggleston, a Memphis photographer credited in photographic folklore with inventing color photography, produced chromatic haiku in the 1970s. Eauclaire includes prints from ``The Democratic Forest,'' which evinces a different direction. Like Sternfeld, Eggleston gazes at the places where humans collide with nature. But Eggleston's nature has become a biotic purgatory, a place where trees yellow next to plastic impersonators.

Although David T. Hanson has photographed strip mining in Montana, Len Jenshel made images of tourism, and Kenneth McGowan recorded the kitsch of wax museums, it would be inaccurate to see these color photographers as social critics. The anomie, the superficiality, the environmental crises of a no longer mythic America are here, but there are no simple answers. Like Huck's creator, the American independents seem to forbid finding a quick moral. Sharp disillusionment, nihilistic passivity, even social advocacy, have become the province of photographic theory, leaving the colorists to make distanced narratives.

For every photographer grappling with what has been called the ``discontent of the civilized with civilization,'' there are those who acknowledge what will be misunderstood as an anti-intellectual position: the contentment of the civilized with limits. Jim Dow celebrates vernacular architecture and painting; Jack D. Teemer Jr. applauds that arena for idiosyncratic expression, the backyard. Mitch Epstein finds epiphanies common in places like Cedar Key and Martha's Vineyard.

What began as an anthology of surfaces turns out to be a photography of ideas. ``American Independents'' should be placed next to ``A Day in the Life of America,'' the best seller from last year, which arranged its camera-conscious subjects into an instant album of the American character. ``A Day in the Life of America'' failed not because it was sentimental, but because it was full of itself and full of distrust for its viewers. Though intended to be a compendium of color photographs, ``American Independents'' succeeds in picturing the way we live now. It does not avoid unpleasantness. It just never gets what Huck called ``cussed smothery.''

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the Department of Fine Arts at Syracuse University.

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