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Focusing on B&W Snapshots and 'Those Nice, Bright Colors of Kodachrome.'

Singing about those nice bright colors
Singing about those nice bright colors
S&G 2009

You give us those nice bright colors ...
You give us the greens of summers...
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah!...
...And everything looks worse in black and white....”

No, it doesn’t!

When Paul Simon wrote, and Simon & Garfunkel sang the classic praises and merits of Kodachrome’s ‘nice bright colors,’ but then concluded the song by lyrically knocking the concept of black & white photography, well, I couldn’t wait to conceptually cross their pre-Ed Koch 59th Street Bridge and focus on making some picture perfect points.

Exploring New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue recently, on the way to visiting the Picasso’s, Rembrandt's, DaVinci’s, Seurat’s, Goyas et al, I was surprised to see a display full of simple black and white snapshots that had been collected by Peter Cohen. When the Met curators met Cohen, it’s easy to see what they liked. Cohen had uncovered decades of anonymous family pictures, all in glorious B&W and agreed to mount a small but interesting Met display showcasing the kind of amateur photographic memories that those of us who remember having Brownie Holiday and Kodak box cameras could thoroughly enjoy.

Then there are simple images in black and white that have made a searing impact on our collective photographic psyches. Stanley Stearns received his first camera as a Bar Mitzvah gift from a relative. News photography became his career. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Stan trained his camera on JFK’s son and exclusively captured that simple son-to-father salute that brought the world to tears.

The list of famous photographers who made everything look great in black and white also includes luminaries as Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Alfred Eisenstadt, Annie Liebovitz, Alfred Stieglitz just to name a few. Maybe Simon & Garfunkel had all of them in mind when on August 15, 1991 during a concert in Central Park, they actually changed their lyrics from “everything looks worse, to everything looks better in black & white.”

OK, but what about ‘those nice bright colors’ that Simon & Garfunkel sing about? Decades ago, in an era when black & white photography was king, working in color became a newer art form that even in its infancy was very slow to develop. But one photographer was out to make an impact.

Until May 4th at New York City’s International Center of Photography near Rockefeller Center, an exhibition titled “Capa in Color” showcases over 100 prints in pure, glorious living color. “Robert Capa” was born Endre Friedmann. In 1933, he moved from German to France to escape the increase in Nazism, and because as a Jewish journalist and photographer, he found it extremely difficult to find work. He adopted his American-sounding name and found it easier to sell his photos to publications including Life, Look, Collier’s, Holiday, Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s. This wonderful ICP exhibit reinforces how color provided Capa with the glitter and humor that B&W often missed. Capa first discovered color in 1938, two years after Kodak developed the first color film they branded as Kodachrome. Sensing its early potential and eager to be slightly ahead of his competition, Capa contacted his agent in New York writing “Please immediately send 12 rolls of Kodachrome with all instructions. Send it ‘Via Clipper’ because I have an idea for Life.” The rest of the story makes for photographic history which you will not want to miss seeing during its limited run.

Highlighted, for example, in one gallery is Capa’s powerful coverage of the Israeli War for Independence along with his book “Report on Israel.” It was Robert’s younger brother who actually founded the ICP years after his death as a way to give his older brother’s extensive black & white and color photo collection a place to call home.

While Robert Capa could make everything look great in black and white, ICP’s celebration of “Capa in Color” reinforces just how colorfully creative a photographic genius can be when he puts those nice bright colors to work.

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