Thursday, March 7, 2013

Thank You, MAM -- Milwaukee Art Museum Mounts "Color Rush" Photography Exhibition

On a chilly night in southeast Wisconsin, tonight the Milwaukee Art Museum provided a warm welcome to guests who enjoyed free Thursday admission to the new exhibition "Color Rush: 75 Years of Color Photography in America."

The exhibition is a preamble to MAM's 125th Anniversary celebration set for the warmer days of spring.

"Color Rush" introduces visitors to the earliest uses of color photography, starting in the early 1900s and leap-frogging a few decades at a time. The first main exhibition room features the early 1930s photos crafted as feature magazine covers and advertising. A cover for a summer 1932 edition of Vogue popped from the walls (the closest image and timing for an Olympic-themed moment as the cover debuted when the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games launched).

My docent host (girlfriend's mother) also pointed out the vivid holiday cookie visuals shown enlarged beside the eventual use of the photograph as part of a lifestyle magazine advertisement. The exhibition has a lot of these -- fine examples, mind you -- juxtaposed with early "hard news" color photos of the Hindenburg disaster. Impressive! Another sports-related magazine cover showcased a figure skating couple in flight above an unseen ice rink. Slick!

As the exhibition advanced to the post-war years and into the 1970s, with a few sets of color slides and some Kodak history, I got that funny feeling that's hit me at other photo exhibitions. Driving home and talking about the exhibition, it hit me again, with the questions I've asked before: Why do museums decide that "art" photography requires the photographers' subjects to be destitute, drug users, or trashy? Why must "museum quality" photography appear at the dregs end, or the Architectural Digest perfect end, of the photo spectrum?

The middle ground in this exhibition featured hotel interiors, urban landscapes and other (for this blogger) ho-hum images.

I guess this is my way of saying that after the High Museum of Art exhibition "Up & Down Peachtree" (photos by Martin Parr), recent Dorothea Lange images in the news, and MAM's exhibition, I'm now tired of photos of the poor, or snapshots of "the ordinary" appearing as "art." What sealed it for me was the "behind the curtain" parental advisory slide show of brothel employees, bodybuilders and dope heads in various stages of undress. What does this have to do with the color photography process?

Fortunately, "Color Rush" includes some dramatic and (never seen by my eyes until tonight) panoramic landscapes by Ansel Adams. It was also fun to discover the surprising pumpkin patch shopper while a three-story house burned in the background in a 1970s color photo by Joel Sternfeld.

Though going to the exhibition I had no specific hopes nor expectations, it was a moderate let down that more iconic color images, or perhaps early color images from cinema, did not make the cut. In that drive home conversation, I found myself asking "what about Annie Leibovitz's landscapes and portraits?" and "what about modern color photography in National Geographic as influenced by early color images in the same or similar publications?"

Is the exhibition "Color Rush" worth a look-see? Absolutely! And the information shared in the exhibition is something I will have to keep processing to see what develops.

Photos via MAM, as well as Vogue UK and

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