Aperture remembers the life of Marie Cosindas, pioneer of the painterly color photograph.
By Lisa Hostetler
Marie Cosindas made a big splash in 1966. That was the year that a solo exhibition of her color photographs opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and to the Art Institute of Chicago the following year. In the catalog, John Szarkowski wrote that her photographs were “as Marianne Moore said poems should be—imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The exhibitions brought her considerable recognition, and her work was published throughout the 1960s and ’70 s in a diverse range of magazines, from Camera and Aperture to Ladies’ Home Journal and Newsweek. Life featured her work four times between 1968 and 1976, and in his introduction to the 1978 monograph Marie Cosindas: Color Photographs, novelist Tom Wolfe—who had been one of her portrait subjects—noted, “By 1968 she was one of the best-known photographers in the United States.” But her fame subsided in the 1980s, and today her place in the history of photography is often overlooked. Why? Perhaps it is because her work has always been an anomaly.
Cosindas’s portraits were known for their warmth and intimacy, and her still lifes suggested an air of reminiscence suffused with mystery. This, at a time when Pop Art’s brightly colored irony and Minimalism’s intellectual rigor pervaded the art world, separated her from prevailing trends. In addition, the most common adjective applied to her photographs at the time they emerged was “painterly,” a characterization that could be construed as a backhanded compliment, depending on who uttered it. Coming from someone who struggled with the notion of photography as an art form—and this could be an art historian, curator, critic, or collector as easily as it could be a member of the general public—the term was an accolade, indicating that Cosindas’s photographs were successful as works of art. In this respect, it is telling that most writers commenting on her photographs took pains to recount her carefully arranged compositions and color schemes, her use of filters to control the quality of light, and the adjustments she made to room temperature, exposure, and development times in order to affect the chemistry of the Polacolor film. It is as though writers felt compelled to compensate for Cosindas’s choice of medium, and perhaps they did, for in the 1960s color photography was most commonly associated with commercial or amateur photography, and instant photography with snapshots and test images.
When applied to Cosindas’s photographs by others, however, the term “painterly” was less complimentary, suggesting that the work attempted to conceal its true photographic essence. For such commentators, Cosindas’s choice of instant color photography was something to be celebrated, but her subject matter was problematic: famous dandies, frilly dolls, and exotic masks were not the stuff of everyday life, and photography should devote itself to documenting ordinary scenes in situ if it wanted to put its best foot forward. The canonization of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in the 1980s reified this point of view. Seen as a hybrid of Pop and Conceptual art that did not undermine the Modernist edict to be “true to medium,” their deadpan snapshot aesthetic was more easily integrated into the art world (especially with Szarkowski as its champion). Recognizing this, Wolfe wrote, “Marie Cosindas’ work was like forbidden fruit unaccountably made available.” Now that the furor over color photographs as art has receded, it seems like a good time to take a bite.
Lisa Hostetler is coauthor of Color Rush: American Color Photography from Stieglitz to Sherman (Aperture, 2013) and the Curator-in-Charge in the Department of Photography at the The George Eastman Museum.
This essay originally appeared in Aperture Issue 2013, “Photography as you don’t know it.”