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Guest Blog by Suzanne Révy
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away”
lyrics by Paul Simon
It’s a shame that color photography only became sufficiently advanced so late in Jaques Henri Lartigue’s long life (1894-1986). Early in his career he experimented with the autochrome color process, but ultimately gave it up. Once improved color film technology became available in the late 1940’s, Lartigue’s color work flourished in the 1950’s. A recently released book, Lartigue, Life in Color by Martine d’Astier and Martine Ravache (Abrams, New York 2015), offers a treasure trove of lesser-known, painterly color work by this late master.
It opens with a synopsis of the invention of color, along with Lartigue’s history in the medium, including his embrace of color photography. His early autochrome work, made mostly in the 1920’s, possesses a quiet stillness that is the antithesis of his better-known, frenetic black and white images of car races and jumping figures. Of course, the autochrome technique required longer exposures, so of necessity the subject needed to be still. He made sixty such portraits of his first, wife, Bibi; one in particular, Bibi at the Eden Roe restaurant, Cap d’Antibes from 1920 depicts her surrounded by the neutral muted colors of an elegant restaurant, face hidden behind the wide brim of a chapeau and her figure framed in a large window complete with a view of the sea that is simply sublime. Who wouldn’t want to dine here? Two very early works, Me Practicing Golf in a Meadow in Rouzat from 1914 and My Cousin Simone Roussel on my two-wheel bobsled, bear a palette that strikes me as incredibly contemporary and anticipates the work of William Eggleston… more on him in a moment.
It is in his images from the 1950’s that Lartigue seems to hit his stride with color photography. That chapter in the book opens with a hushed photograph made on a rainy All Saints Day in a cemetery with grey and black umbrellas punctuated by soft reds of flowers caressed tenderly by an anonymous figure. In others, Lartigue’s famous penchant for capturing movement is clear: a dog in mid-leap, the wake of a barge or the steam of a train. He explored the seasons, and was particularly adept at making pictures of snow. The book reveals an artist who was joyful and full of wonder, photographing the people and places he loved.
As I mentioned, several of Lartigue’s images seem to anticipate William Eggleston’s palette, but there’s an edge to Eggleston that Lartigue’s work lacks. The recently published book, William Eggleston: Portraits accompanied an exhibition of the same name that was on view earlier this fall at London’s National Portrait Gallery, curated by Philip Prodger. In Prodger’s introductory essay, he suggests that Eggleston’s pictures could be viewed as musical notes— visceral, immediate and pure. Eggelston famously resists interpreting his work, and viewers are often mystified by his lack of narrative or compositional clarity. Prodger writes, “they offer provocation without resolution.”
Although known primarily for his color work, the plates in the book begin with a B&W portrait of a woman with a flip hair-do and a string of pearls, holding a drink, her eyes gazing beyond the camera, looking as though she’s about to introduce herself to someone unseen to us. In this early work, Eggleston catches glimpses of his subjects, one talking on the phone, another looking over her shoulder at the photographer, another of an African-American housekeeper making up a bed. They present more narrative possibilities than his later work, but one grainy image, Untitled, 1966 (the artist’s mother, Ann, in Memphis, Tennessee) is intimate, ephemeral and mysterious.
Eggleston’s distinct eye becomes apparent in the mid-1960’s; the images take on a more random quality, even a series of large format portraits depict his subjects in mid-gesture or expression that foreshadows the snapshot aesthetic he employed with smaller cameras from the early 70’s onward. His wonderful picture, Untitled, 1973-4 (Marcia Hare) depicts his then girlfriend lying languidly on the grass in her white dress with red buttons, shallow depth of field that emphasizes the faraway expression of her face and the brownie camera in her left hand. It’s an extraordinary picture, and not a portrait in the traditional sense. In fact, this collection of pictures asks the question, “what is a portrait?” His many quickly sensed and shot pictures reveal details of his subject, but little else. For example, Untitled, 1965-8 (Memphis, Tennessee) portrays the back of an elderly woman’s head with a french twist smoking a cigarette in a restaurant booth… I can’t help but wonder about her face. Is it as severe as her hair? So many times we expect portraits to illuminate something about the sitter, but Eggleston does not feel obliged to fill in the blanks.
The use of color photography was dominated by magazine advertising from the late fifties into the early sixties, but Eggleston’s pioneering use of color as fine art offers images that employ greens and reds that are so rich they become part of the portrait. Untitled 1969-71 (the artist’s grandmother, Minnie Maude McMullen May, in Sumner, Mississippi), Untitled, 1972 (TC Boring in Greenwood, Mississippi) and Untitled 1973 (the artist’s nephew, Adyn Schuyler, in Sumner, Mississippi) are so lush in color that the sitters are simply elements of the rooms in which they are shown. In Untitled, c. 1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) the artificial colors of a cushion, her dress and the white metal of the swing couch clash with the natural colors of the leaves, stones, and skin tone of her face and legs, and yet.. it works, there’s a faded elegance to her manner.
Just about any contemporary photographer who is working with color stands on the shoulders of Eggleston. Frances F. Denny’s recently published monograph, Let Virtue by Your Guide, gives a nod to Eggleston’s magnified subtext of a frayed culture in a couple of pictures, but also recalls something of the delicacy of Lartigue’s pictures. Like Eggeston, Denny photographed the familiar surroundings of home and, in her case, a deeply rooted New England family. Several images display a faded elegance in the details of fabrics, wallpaper or clothing, absent the supersaturated hues that lends Eggleston’s photographs their surreal uneasiness. Heirlooms stored in attics and china closets imply a kind of reverence for previous generations, but also shifts in priorities throughout the years. Like Lartigue, the palette is subdued and muted, but Denny’s compositions feel more attentive and careful than his work. Several portraits show different generations of women in Denny’s family, in which she transmits a palpable emotional reserve. Lartigue and Eggleston rarely contextualized their work with writing, in fact, Eggleston is downright hostile toward writing with pictures, but Denny includes the words of advice offered the women in her family over time… these quotes simply state the date of birth of the speaker, and they evoke embedded anxieties about heritage and legacy for generations of a firmly established family and culture.
Lartigue, Eggleston and Denny all offer insights into the history of color photography through imagery made close to their homes. Lartigue’s early experiments stylishly portray his wife while later work allows him to infect the reader with his obvious joy. Eggleston’s instinctual eye, in a medium that had become a polished commercial tool, challenges viewers with unexpected observations of the mundane. Denny’s incisive contemporary exploration of the generations and culture in which she grew up integrate elements of her predecessors with fresh eyes and a sophisticated aura.
Lartigue: Life in Color
Martine d’Aster and Martine Ravache
Abrams, New York
William Eggleston: Potraits
Philip Prodger with an appreciation by Sofia Coppola
Yale University Press 2016
Let Virtue be Your Guide
Photographs by Frances F. Denny
Text by Lisa Locascio
Radius Books, 2015
Suzanne Révy is a Boston-based fine art photographer whose work is represented by Panopticon Gallery. She writes the blog, A Grain of Sand. To learn more about Suzanne’s work, go to: http://www.suzannerevy.com/ OR http://www.panopticongallery.com/artist/suzanne_revy/#Suzanne_Revy_40.jpg
Feature Image: William Eggleston “Untitled (Dennis Hopper), 1970-74 (detail), ©Eggleston Artistic Trust