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Power of colour lights up Lausanne

Times Square New York 2002. Robert Walker

Outside it’s another cold and grey November day in Lausanne. But on the walls inside the city’s photography museum at least, there are splashes of bright colour to bring warmth.

This content was published on November 13, 2003 - 15:31

The title of the exhibition in the Musée de l’Elysée says it all: Colour is Power.

Nearly 30 years ago, Canadian photographer Robert Walker concluded that only colour could do justice to the visual riot of the urban scene.

His work eventually led him from Montreal to Toronto, New York, Rome, Paris, Warsaw and many other cities.

The result is a collection of photographs that tend to take an ironic look at the consumer society and advertising imagery – pictures that highlight the ways in which advertising has invaded our daily lives and become an overwhelming presence in urban areas.

Walker found that the Times Square neighbourhood of New York – where he lived for ten years – represented an ideal location from which to observe and examine this spectacular phenomenon. He returns to it with his camera on a regular basis.

Commercial ploy

As he observes, colour is one of the major commercial ploys used to capture the public’s attention, as the exhibition title, taken directly from an Avon advertisement, indicates.

“The roots of my interest in colour go back to the early 1960s when I was an art student in Montreal,” he told swissinfo.

“American abstract painting and Pop Art were very much in vogue, and I was painting large colour-field pictures.”

In 1975 Walker attended a workshop given by leading American photographer Lee Friedlander, whose images involving reflective and semi-transparent surfaces create playful ambiguities of space and meaning.

The workshop encouraged the young artist to become a street photographer; a feeling that black-and-white photography had exhausted its potential led him to adopt colour at a time when art photography was beginning to take colour seriously.

“I intuitively felt that the vocabulary of black-and-white photography was being used up, so I switched to colour,” said Walker.

“At that time there were no real models of colour photography to emulate, so it was quite exciting to be in at the creative beginnings of the medium.”

Ideal landscape

He added that Times Square was an ideal landscape for what he had in mind: “It offered the opportunity to takes pictures that related to my experience as a painter. I could compose pictures without having to deal with a horizon line.

“When I looked up, everything was a mass of advertising and imagery, and I was drawn to the colours.”

Walker also acknowledges the social critique in the work of Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Robert Rauschenberg, whose figurative imagery often focuses on the excesses of consumerism.

Working on the streets of big cities, he was able to adapt to situations as they evolved – improvisation and spontaneity are qualities that Walker has long admired in jazz musicians.

His photographs have these qualities, but they also reveal the thought and creativity of a true artist.

Colour is Power can be seen at Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée until January 25.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson in Lausanne

Walker

Born in Montreal, Robert Walker studied art in the Canadian city in the 1960s and switched from painting to colour photography in 1975.

His work led him from Montreal to Toronto, New York, Rome, Paris, Warsaw and other cities.

The photographs highlight the ways in which advertising has profoundly infiltrated daily experience and become an overwhelming presence in urban areas.

Walker lived for ten years in the Times Square neighbourhood of New York and says it represents an ideal location from which to observe and examine this spectacular phenomenon.

Colour is Power is the title of both the exhibition and a book.

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