Sightlines Highlights Lucinda Devlin’s Color Photography
Lucinda Devlin shot pictures in black-and-white, but saw a world with a “very strong color element.”
In 1975, color photography was still seen as déclassé, something reserved for advertising.
That year, though, Devlin put away her black and white film, and took her place among a vanguard of artists who were starting to treat color photography seriously.
“If you were doing art photography, black and white had been the standard,” she said. “But, I think if you were to look at these pictures of mine in black and white, you would lose this whole other dimension that was clearly thought about by the people who designed and built these spaces that I’ve shot. It’s an integral part of the environment.”
More than 80 of Devlin’s photographs are now on display at the Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of UNCG, for an exhibition titled “Sightlines.”
The photos come from eight collections by Devlin, with themes such as “Pleasure Ground,” “Habitats” and “Subterranea.” Photos in one series, titled “The Omega Suites,” feature execution chambers from around the country.
Among her other subjects are electrical towers rising out of farmland in the Midwest, pink psychedelic motel rooms, and a gym decked out in lime green.
“She does a good job of capturing the artificiality of the sites,” said Elaine Gustafson, curator of collections at the Weatherspoon. “In one picture you see a forest with a bat hanging from a tree, and in a corner you see a vent. Or you see a reflection of an exit sign. There’s a humor in some of her work.”
Devlin hails from Michigan, and moved from Indianapolis to Greensboro in 2013 after her husband Peter Alexander became dean at what is now UNCG’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.
She was an English major at Eastern Michigan University when, during her senior year, she decided to take a three dimensional design course.
As part of that class, she had to complete a project on the theme of time.
“So I chose to make photographs,” she said. “It had to do with shadows, and how shadows changed over the course of a day. And that was how I depicted time. It wasn’t particularly innovative, but it made sense to me. And I found that photography was my medium.”
She earned a Master of Fine Arts in 1974, and went on to become a college instructor.
One day she went to a shoot with two cameras – one loaded with black and white film, and another with color.
“I shot with both cameras, and when I looked at the results I realized I needed to be photographing in color,” she said.
Around that time, photographer William Eggleston had an exhibition of pictures that were all in color at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show was fairly controversial in the art world at the time, breaking with norms that had long held black and white as the only appropriate medium for serious photographers. The exhibition is now seen as a turning point for color photography.
“This was really before it became acceptable,” Gustafson said. “But color is a very dominant force. It can be distracting at times.”
Devlin, Gustafson said, had a way of creating photographs that were balanced.
“It’s not just about the color,” Gustafson said. “She’s able to work with color as a tool. But, the subject matter was equally as important as the formalism of the work.”
Devlin’s early series, “Pleasure Ground,” features places people go to for fun, or to “experience pleasure” as she puts it, such as tanning salons and hotel rooms.
“These are places people have some control over,” she said. “You chose to go there for whatever activity is going to take place.”
“The Omega Suites,” features a cooler, more clinical palette – white rooms lit by fluorescent lights, providing an otherworldly tinge of green. A bright yellow electric chair offers a rare splash of color.
“When you get to ‘The Omega Suites’ that control is completely gone, you can’t control what happens to you,” Devlin said. “You’re totally passive within that environment. There’s a frightening element of not having control over what happens to you.”
She obtained permission to shoot in about 20 prisons while working on the series.
“Sometimes a PR person would take me in, sometimes an assistant warden, sometimes just a guard,” she said. “But I always felt I was under a time pressure – just get in, get the photographs and get out. It was always stressful to go in.”
Devlin said she’s not necessarily out to “change anyone’s mind” with her work.
“I just want people to see what I see, how I see it,” she said. “I’m just trying to present my view of the world.”
Wanna go? Lucinda Devlin’s exhibition “Sightlines,” featuring 83 photographs, will be on view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of UNCG until April 23. The gallery will host a talk with Sociology professor Saundra Westervelt at 6 p.m. on March 2. She is the author of “Life After Death Row,” about former death row inmates who were exonerated. Devlin herself will speak about the exhibition at 5:30 p.m. on March 9. The exhibition as well as Devlin and Westervelt’s presentation are free to attend. For more information call (336) 334-5770 or visit weatherspoon.uncg.edu.