Women in Colour
August – September 2017
Amanda Means | Carrie Mae Weems | Cindy Sherman | Ellen Carey | Elinor Carucci | Jan Groover | Liz Nielsen | Laurie Simmons | Patty Carroll | Meghann Riepenhoff | Marion Belanger | Moira McDonald | Penelope Umbrico | Susan Derges | Whitney Hubbs
RUBBER FACTORY is pleased to present a group exhibition titled, Women in Colour, curated by Ellen Carey. The exhibition provides a scholarly context highlighting women and color photography. Colour, the British English spelling, references color photography’s origins in England.
Ellen Carey’s research on the origins and history of color photography note the pivotal contributions to the field by the British Victorian, Anna Atkins (1799-1871). Atkins was the first woman photographer, albeit camera-less, and the first in color – using the cyanotype, which yielded a Prussian Blue. Sir John Herschel, the British scientist, taught her his method. She partnered it with Talbot’s photogram (1834) — his paper negative image produced a palette of earthy browns. Atkins’s experimental cyanotypes are echoed in the exhibition by Meghann Riepenhoff’s contemporary cyanotypes, which are exposed to the elements and become dazzling documents of nature in a multitude of blue and golden tones. Other artists included, such as Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons, who used color in photography in sharp opposition to contemporaries still married to black and white, are prime examples of making color a deliberate choice in their practices. Cindy Sherman’s chameleon-like roles are also notable for how the use of color, instead of black and white, interrupts the pretense of her series as a period piece. While Carrie Mae Weems’s piece in the exhibition, Color: Real and Imagined (2014), illustrates the tensions between erasure and visibility through the use of screen-printed color blocks; the visual trope of the grid is brought to life by the use of colors which overwhelm and consume their subjects, becoming a warning for the over simplification of the world.
The exhibition also posits a link between tetrachromacy – the genetic phenomenon most common in individuals with two X Chromosomes, allowing them to perceive an exponentially larger color spectrum as a result of having four retinal cones instead of three – and the wealth of women practitioners throughout history who chose to use color. When considered with other scientific findings such as color blindness occurring 20 times more frequently in men (XY Chromosomes), it suggests that women may have an increased understanding of color.
Women in Colour provides a scholarly context highlighting women and color photography. In addition to Anna Atkins, Ellen Carey’s thesis and presentation includes Amanda Means, Carrie Mae Weems, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Meghann Riepenhoff and others.
Ellen Carey’s research on the origins and history of color photography noted an absence that prompted a question: “Where would color photography and women practitioners be without the work of Anna Atkins?" The British Victorian, Anna Atkins (1799-1871), was the first woman photographer, albeit camera-less, and the first in color, using the cyanotype, a method that yielded a Prussian blue. Sir John Herschel, the British scientist, taught her his method. She partnered it with Talbot’s photogram (1834) — his paper negative image, a ghostly outline of the object in non-color, produced a palette of earthy browns. Gender codes of Atkins’ blue/feminine versus Talbot’s brown/masculine underscore these divisions of content, context, and concept, adding to the discourse around male and female sight.
Atkins’s cyanotype-as-photogram includes her handwriting, another first. Writing as “word art” is born, delicately seen in her cursive, filigree descriptions, in and around her botanical and nature studies. Her compositions are precursors to abstraction and minimalism in photography, noted for their sophisticated, elegant arrangements that highlight her keen visual intelligence. Her work points the way to these less-is-more art movements through off-frame space, symmetry and asymmetry, reductive palette, rectangular frame-as-active picture plane, line-as-open form, size, and scale, thinking conceptually toward the end results. Atkins’s actions are fluid and highly sensitive, powerful in their visual impact, and no bigger than a sheet of paper or a small page in a book; one of seventeen existing portfolios is in the New York Public Library’s collection.
Women in Colour advances new scholarship through a distinct and separate category, tracing its origins to gender-specificity. In doing so, it challenges and reframes the big question posed by the American art historian, Linda Nochlin, in her groundbreaking essay (1971) published in ArtNews: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Today, almost a half-century later, the answer to Nochlin’s question in art and feminist debates, art history and criticism, art world and marketplace proves this has improved, but still exists. Carey’s femme brut(e) is a curatorial phrase she developed to describe this bias, bringing it to the surface for (re)examination; it celebrates all the great women artists. Her research finds color blindness probably existed with gender blindness when the tetrachromacy gene is taken into account. New scientific data shows that a DNA gene called tetrachromacy allows some women an increased ability to perceptually see and perhaps have a greater understanding of color. Having four cones instead of 3 significantly multiplies the amount of color one can discern; color blindness is 20 times more frequent in men. Perhaps this phenomena explains why photography is well populated by great women practitioners, many using color.
Color is light, and light is photography’s indexical. Photogram and cyanotype are transformed through the agency of nature; “sun pictures” double and mirror the phrase drawing with light. Ellen Carey’s hypothesis supports the singular recognition of women practitioners, whose historical and contemporary collective contributions in color photography remain “under-exposed,” to borrow a traditional photographic term.
Why do women photographers choose color? What are the aesthetic reasons? How are they gender-driven? Is color more “attractive” or was it because originally photography was an “empty” field? Women for the first time freed themselves from the margins of art history because photography wasn’t considered serious or an art form. So, does practicing color offer paradoxically more freedom? The British late Victorian, Lady Sarah Angelina Acland, follows Atkins in the ‘Sanger-Shepard’ color process. Ellen Carey’s big question: “Who was first in color photography?” is resolved by the thesis which notes that this person was definitely a British female living in the 19th century called Anna Atkins. Colour, the British English spelling, highlights color photography’s origins in England.
Color orbits an artist’s universe; color theory (RGB=YMC) is photography’s planet. In partnership with other disciplines, new discourses expand: theory/art history, feminism/photography, aesthetics/technology, and gender psychology/biology of seeing. Ellen Carey’s practices as “Photography Degree Zero” (1996-2017) and “Struck by Light” (1992- 2017) contribute to this dialogue, she is a “woman in color.” Her scholarship known as Pictus & Writ (2008-2014) sees published essays on Sol LeWitt and Man Ray.