Before The Shift: The Early Black and White Photographs of Alex Webb, Martin Parr, Lynne Cohen, and Stephen Shore

The real world was always in color. Around 1830 the newborn art and science of photography rebirthed it in glorious black and white ( and shades of gray ). Color, when it showed up, came haltingly, experimentally and finally triumphantly. Today, many of the biggest names in photography are best-known for their color artworks. Four of them are featured in Before The Shift. And each of these artists has his or her roots in classic silver print darkroom photography.

Gathered here are early works from the 1970s – by four modern masters – Alex Webb, Martin Parr, Lynne Cohen and Stephen Shore. Each artist has undergone a paradigm shift in moving from black and white to color in creating their later mature artistic career statements. Color built on black and white. The viewer will find interesting the relatively spare, restrained and classical approaches on display.

Webb’s razor-sharp but respectful studies of life’s myriad moments strike a Cartier-Bresson like chord, whereas his later color work, while still invested in reportage – branches off to also celebrate painterly patterns and designs that create their own separate statements. Here Webb is pared down to the essentials of classic photography, images well-conceived and finely crafted. As with Cartier-Bresson, Webb’s subjects are left their humanity and dignity. Even Webb’s quiet pictures hum with electricity.

Martin Parr’s prints in the show offer insight into an eye developing an aesthetic that would later become world – renown for lushly created, playful and acerbic social commentaries every bit as charged as the keen observations by his artistic forebears, William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson (in drawings and engravings). In Before The Shift, some of Parr’s black and white works are by contrast, poetic and reserved, – delicately printed excavations of poignant moments, culled from scenes where the subjects are either unaware or not asking for attention. Others are family portraits where you can begin to see the artist’s experiments in the artistic elevation of the ordinary.

Lynne Cohen ‘s large color diagrammatic studies of human-built environments where the occupants have stepped just out of frame are engaging and immersive, tinted with her bone dry humor. Her black and white studies interpret differently. Here we see the same wry aesthetic, but defined by a cool distance and a surgically precise tone and design. She has been called “The Talking Heads” of photography. Indeed, David Byrne, the former head of the groundbreaking 1970s musical group, wrote the introduction to her first published volume of black and white photographs. Some of the images in this exhibition are as aesthetically spare as a haiku.

Stephen Shore is a household word in the world of color photography. Precocious, he reportedly sold three prints to the iconic Edward Steichen, then head curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art when he was fourteen years old. Shore’s projects during the 1970s helped create the atmosphere of respect for color photography, allowing it to be considered the artistic equal of traditional silver printing. Here Shore is represented by a quartet of diptychs, images of a subtly shifting suburban landscape.

Please join us to enjoy Before The Shift with the artist Alex Webb in attendance!