Funky Hand-Painted Prints Exhibit Reminds Us of How Cool Selective Color Really Was

Funky Hand-Painted Prints Exhibit Reminds Us of How Cool Selective Color Really Was

What once was old and lost can be found new again, can’t it? That’s what photography is all about, after all. Sealing something in time. A visual tomb, preserved without the breeze of the next day to blow it along, but never suffocating. Alive. It's funny that this is how I felt when I stumbled across photographs from The National Gallery of Australia’s "Colour My World" exhibit.

What was once a trend that faded away with the onset of cheap 35mm film and one-hour developers caught my eye as eccentric and somehow classical in appearance. Hand painting on black and white prints might be a thing of the past but it’s fun to observe what the trend meant for the times.

LEFT: "Babies" by Micky Allan, 1976 Melbourne | gelatin silver photograph, color pencils | 11.3 x 11.4 cm | National Gallery of Australia, Canberra | Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982. RIGHT: "The prime of life" by Micky Allan | 1979 Sydney | gelatin silver photograph, color pencils, watercolor, and gouache | 32 x 42.7 cm | Purchased 1981 | National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

This photography gallery is on display at the National Gallery of Australia until Sept. 20, 2015. It's an observation of a relatively modern technique that was born out of retouching methods used to repair, preserve, and colorize black and white prints.

“The 1970s saw a revival of handcolouring among a number of Australian photographers and it remains a significant aspect of contemporary practice,” reads the National Gallery’s website. “The artists included in this exhibition seek to create a direct connection between their experience and that of the viewer.”

I was surprised how drawn I was to the funky colors and almost Warhol-esque pop art look that these late 70s and early 80s prints presented — especially if I'm honest in how often I’ve scoffed at dramatic Photoshop trends that have only recently been bucked by the mainstream.

LEFT: "Untitled" by Robyn Stacey | 1985-1987 | gelatin silver photograph, color dyes | 40.5 x 50.7 cm | Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney. RIGHT: "Untitled" by Robyn Stacey | 1985-1987 | gelatin silver photograph, color dyes | 50.7 x 34.4 cm | Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

Selective color anyone? It’s hard to deny the parallel between the look of the aforementioned painting technique and the most famous Photoshop trick of the early aughts. Is it possible that in the not-so-near future I’ll stumble upon a gallery of white vignettes and black and white brides clutching deep red bouquets and be filled with the same whimsy? I’m betting not, but who knows? These trends really do define us as artists. None of us are truly immune to the pressures of our culture and subculture. I have the green stonewashed jeans to prove it.

I love that these images are, to me, just the raucous versions of the colorized photo of my wife's grandmother that is resting on an end table at my in-laws' house. She’s pastel and somehow enhanced in a way that utters the era of the print’s origin without truly announcing a date.

LEFT: “Jesse and Roger” from the series “Some men” by Ruth Madison | 1983 Melbourne | gelatin silver photograph, oil paint | 26.4 x 39.6 cm | National Gallery of Australia, Canberra | Purchased 1983. RIGHT: “Christmas holiday with Bob's family, Mermaid Beach” by Ruth Madison | Queensland 1977/78 | gelatin silver photographs, color dyes | hand-colored | 10.6 x 16.2 cm | National Gallery of Australia, Canberra | Purchased 1988.

I just can’t get past the idea that nostalgia will make us love everything again someday. I know, the film nerds are going to hammer me for comparing anything silver halide to selective color, and perhaps they are categorically different enough for me to feel ashamed of the comparison? Perhaps.

Either way, hand painting is pretty cool and you can even find some sort of instruction to do so yourself, if you’d like to relive this trend.

All images used with permission.

Adam Sparkes's picture

Adam is the Assistant Director of Photography at Central Michigan University. He has been pushing a button for a living since 2009 and for that entire time constantly finds himself correcting people who pronounce it "fur-tographer".

Log in or register to post comments

I've got a pretty good sized set of Veronica Cass oils, if anyone wants to have a go...

We used to do this in high school, I found a few of the pics I did recently. Its pretty cool.

Show us, Ricky!