Background Information

Color photographs are a major part of our world today. Brightly colored images illustrate magazines; memory-rich pictures fill scrapbooks and desktop frames; and, of course, everyday snapshots flood the Internet, thanks to smartphones, Facebook, and Instagram.

But it wasn’t always this way. People have always seen in color, but our photographs were originally in black and white. Color Rush: 75 Years of Color Photography in America examines the seventy-five-year period during which the science behind color photography was being developed and perfected. These innovations inspired artists to experiment with the medium, pushing fine and commercial art in new ways.

Color photography was (and is) a medium for fine art, a tool for advertising, and a way for memories to be preserved—in color. This exhibition follows the development of color photography, pinpointing when the medium began to serve each of these purposes.

Advances in technology made color photography available to artists and the public alike, contributing to its rise in popularity. In 1907, the first color photography process, the autochrome, went on the market for anyone to purchase. The process was time consuming, but accessible, and artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were eager to put it to the test. Even National Geographic magazine started consistently publishing autochromes. As such, the introduction of the autochrome is seen as marking the arrival of color photography as an artistic and commercial medium.

Beginning in 1917 and continuing through the 1930s, color film made its way to Hollywood; The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a well-loved example of the movie industry’s transition to color. In the 1930s, fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar included color photographs and covers, while museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, presented exhibitions of color photography. Kodak’s release of Kodachrome film in 1936, the first commercially successful color process since the autochrome, also went a long way in advancing the spread of photographic images in color. Kodak even paid artists to take photographs using its color film.

The ensuing decades saw a rapid increase in the use of color photography, such that by 1981, color photographs had saturated popular culture and established a place in the art world.

For a deeper look into each section of the exhibition, check out the Exhibition Walkthrough.

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