Claire Lehmann at Triple Canopy:
On a warm spring evening in early May, 1950, Edward Steichen, the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, opened an exhibition touted as a milestone event: the museum’s first exhibition devoted solely to color photography—titled, authoritatively, “Color Photography.” It featured an extravagant profusion of photographs drawn from science, journalism, and commerce: a microscope picture of an amoeba; an aerial photo taken from a rocket launched over the White Sands missile facility in New Mexico; Life’s images of exploding atomic bombs and the first published color photo of Mars; tear-sheets from the pages of Vogue, Fortune,Ladies’ Home Journal, and other popular magazines. The varied list of photographers included Roman Vishniac, Paul Outerbridge, Eliot Porter, Weegee, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Horst P. Horst, and Steichen himself.
The abundance of imagery on display served Steichen’s curatorial aim: to probe whether this technology could be a “new” and “creative” medium for the artist, and not just a “means of supplementing or elaborating the recognized attainments of black and white photography.” Chronologically, the show’s earliest works were printed reproductions of Autochromes, the colored-starch glass plates patented by the Lumière Brothers in 1904, marking that invention as the inauguration of modern color photography. But chronology didn’t guide the exhibition: the physical layout was determined by image source (e.g., the military, the magazine) and display needs of various media, particularly the many color transparencies, which had to be lit from behind in darkened rooms.