Exploring the History of Color Photography

Representative photographs and related material from the College’s extensive, 5000-print-deep photography collection takes viewers on a tour of color photography’s history and demonstrates how it has grown to become the norm when it was once the exception.

The Haverford College Photography Collection is almost as old as the medium or the College itself. Since roughly 1870, in fact, it has grown to be encyclopedic in scope, spanning more than 5,000 prints representing the work of more than 500 photographers. (Among them are household names such as Andy Warhol, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, and their like.) It encompasses many genres—war, fashion, landscape, fine art—and spans the medium’s history from early daguerreotype to black-and-white, color, and contemporary digital photography.

Regularly, the Fine Arts Department exhibits pieces from the collection, which is housed in the Library’s Quaker and Special Collections, in Marshall Fine Arts Center’s Atrium Gallery. William Williams, the Audrey A. and John L. Dusseau Professor in the Humanities, professor of fine arts, and curator of photography, organizes these exhibitions, and has recently been focused on grouping and exhibiting the works in the College’s Collection as historical surveys. (Women and African American photographers were highlighted in shows in 2014 and 2015, respectively.) Williams trained his spotlight on color photography this semester, kicking off the new year with A Survey of Color Photography from its Prehistory to the Present Day, an exhibit of 75 representative photographs and related material from the College’s collection that demonstrates how color photography has grown to become the norm when it was once the exception.

Though the technology to shoot in color was widely available to professionals and amateurs alike by the 1950s, the prevailing sentiment of the era was that color photography was not artistic and that, as photographer Robert Frank wrote in 1958, “Black and white are the colors of photography.” Recognition of color photography as an art form didn’t begin until decades later with William Eggleston’s 1976 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which stunned critics with its negation of black-and-white techniques. A first edition catalog for that show is part of this Atrium Gallery exhibit.

Also on display are works by Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Harold Edgerton, Walker Evans, Harry Warnecke, Robert Frank, Deborah Wills, Stephen Shore, Russell Lee, Joel Sternfeld, and Paul Octavious. The history of digital color photography is told from “Voodoo Child,” Thomas Porett’s 1980 benchmark for how far this medium has come, to recent works by Zoe Strauss, Shane Lavalette, Kelli Conell, and Misty Keasler.

A Survey of Color Photography from its Prehistory to the Present Day will be on display in the Atrium Gallery through April 29.

Photos by Cole Sansom ’19.