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Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980


Stephen Shore

Sault Ste.-Marie, Ontario, August 13, 1974, 1974. 

Chromogenic print, 20 x 24 in. 

© Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

The first historical survey of what critics dubbed “The New Color Photography,” in the decade when photography moved towards a central role in contemporary art. Featuring the work of:

Robert Heinecken

Stephen Shore

Mitch Epstein

Joel Meyerowitz

Helen Levitt

Neal Slavin

Joel Sternfeld

Eve Sonneman

Les Krims

William Christenberry

William Eggleston

Jan Groover

Barbara Kasten

John Divola

John Pfahl

Richard Misrach

Harry Callahan

Leo Rubinfien

Full color catalogue by Kevin Moore with essays by James Crump and Leo Rubinfien. Published by Hatje Cantz and distributed by DAP/Distributed Art Publishers


Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980 is the first historical survey of what critics of the 1970s dubbed “The New Color Photography.” Focusing on eighteen artists, the exhibition explores the medium's shift from the social documentary issues associated with black-and-white to subtler concerns addressed by the naturalism, banality, and ambiguity of color. Through the work of diverse figures, including William Eggleston, Robert Heinecken, Helen Levitt, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, and Jan Groover, Starburst revisits the search for meaning in a decade marked by political instability, inflation, plane hijackings, oil embargoes, and general cultural malaise.


Until the 1970s, color photography was associated with “low” commercial and vernacular uses, including advertising, fashion photography, snapshots, and pop photojournalism. As color films grew more affordable and fade-resistant, a generation of young photographers began a serious exploration of color's potential as an artistic medium. For some photographers, such as Helen Levitt, color presented a way to augment their work in black and white; others, such as Stephen Shore, embraced color exclusively, finding a deep correspondence between the colors of commercially manufactured film and a contemporary landscape of cars, tract houses, advertising, cinema, and television.


Color encouraged camera artists to connect with other media, blurring the boundaries between traditional art photography and other art practices, such as video, Pop Art, Performance Art, Land Art, and Photo-Realist Painting. Many artists who came to be identified with New Color were newcomers from other artistic spheres: Robert Heinecken, William Christenberry, Jan Groover, and Barbara Kasten were all painters. Others who considered themselves strictly photographers adopted practices from other media: Les Krims, John Divola, and John Pfahl brought aspects of performance art and conceptual art to the photographic image. Still, critical discussion always came back to photography and its potential as a distinct artistic medium. At the decade's end, with the election of Ronald Reagan and a national turn to political conservatism, photography returned to an older set of practices. Many photographers began training large format cameras on classic subjects, such as landscape and social life. But now, their images incorporated color and the range of cultural associations that had come to surround it.


The first scholarly survey of its kind, Starburst features reconstructions of key color installations in order to give firsthand access to the terms, formats, and contexts of color's emergence during the 1970s. William Eggleston’s controversial one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 1976, is represented by a selection of twenty photographs, including many seldom seen in later years. Also here is Stephen Shore's American Surfaces, a project not shown in its original format since the work's debut at Light Gallery in 1972, and Helen Levitt's slide show, projected at MoMA in 1974. By revisiting these pivotal events, Starburst offers a fresh look at bodies of work that sometimes feel startlingly new, suggesting profound connections between the innovations of the 1970s and photography's central role in present-day contemporary art.

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