Why does harvest gold connote “sad old appliance” but rose gold say “sexy new iPhone”? That’s one question posed in the centerpiece of Sara Cwynar’s captivating new show at Foxy Production, a seven-minute film collage, with voice-over, whose subjects include, but aren’t limited to: consumerism, obsolescence, sexism, Melamine dinnerware, brightly plumed parrots, and, for reasons that I’ve yet to grok, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The tone of Cwynar’s movie mimics mid-twentieth-century educational films—if they had been peppered with quotes from Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty—but none of the footage is found. Cwynar shot it herself, on 16-mm. stock, not digital video—a crucial detail, given that one of her central subjects is film itself. (The exceptions to the rule are the scenes in which Cwynar appears onscreen, a pretty blond woman identifiable by her telltale earrings, a tiny gold “S” and “C,” which were shot by somebody else.) Cwynar belongs to the same lineage of camera-minded conceptualists as Tacita Dean, who filmed the production of Kodak’s last rolls of 16-mm. film on obsolete stock, and Christopher Williams, whose beautiful, if recondite, pictures make hay of commercial photo-studio conventions.
Above all, Cwynar’s film, which is titled “Rose Gold,” is a meditation on color. Cwynar is intimately acquainted with the vagaries of palettes: prior to earning her M.F.A. in photography at Yale, the Vancouver-born artist worked as a graphic designer, notably for the Times Magazine. (Full disclosure: The New Yorker commissioned Cwynar to take the photographs for our 2015 Fiction Issue.) As her gimlet-eyed show, which also includes three series of photographs, makes vividly clear, color is a cultural construct. Consider an old box of crayons: in 1961, Crayola retired “flesh” and replaced it with the less Caucasian-centric “peach.” As absorbing as her short movie is, the strongest part of Cwynar’s exhibition is a group of still pictures that pull back the veil on an obscure episode in the history of color film as it relates to capturing skin tones.
The six pictures in question are portraits of the artist’s friend, Tracy, a beautiful young woman of Asian heritage, who poses in pink, red, and yellow outfits against backdrops of deep blue and green, wearing expressions that range from side-eyed disinterest to direct-at-the-lens gaze. In four of the pictures, Tracy’s image is partially hidden by arrangements of found snapshots, clippings from dictionaries, and nostalgic objects—an empty ring box, perfume bottles, women’s nylons in a jumble of hues. The last detail is a clue to the secret history that’s hinted at more directly in two other pictures, in which Tracy lounges against giant colorful grids, in lieu of cloth backdrops. They suggest the CMYK standard (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) used in “match prints,” which insure that the colors in a reproduced photograph are correct before it goes to press.
But from the mid-nineteen-fifties to the early seventies, Kodak supplied commercial photographers who bought its film with so-called Shirley cards, images of women—always Caucasian—that were printed on card stock and used as the standard for lighting in studios. (Apocrypha has it that that the first woman whose image was used on the cards was a Kodak employee named Shirley.) The protocol was eventually updated to include black, Latina, and Asian models—but not for the same reasons that made Crayola retire its “flesh” crayon. Rather, it was complaints from furniture manufacturers, frustrated that blond and dark woods were indistinguishable in advertisements, as well as from the candy industry, irate that milk- and dark-chocolate bars looked just the same. (For a deep dive into the subject, consult the Colour Balance Project of the Canadian scholar Lorna Roth.) In her portraits of Tracy, Cwynar performs a sly bit of color correction herself.
Sara Cwynar’s exhibition “Rose Gold” is on view at Foxy Production through May 14th.