I’m (mostly) a color (hack) photographer. I appreciate the fun colors of (some) expired film, of Lomography’s Purple stock, but not of Psychedelic Blues so much, and I’ve long wanted to try Tri-Chromes (or whatever it is where you take three b/w photographs with r/g/b filters on the front and combine them in the darkroom (or photoshop) to make a color image), but I’ve not yet done it.

So when I read the Jorg Colberg’s review of Pure Country, I jumped on it.


For Pure Country, Sullivan took photographs by Sergei Produkin-Gorskii and others, unrelated images, Albers Homage to the Square bits, patterns, newspaper pages, and the like, and constructed a sort of alternate history of color photography. Sullivan includes a timeline in the last pages, the “Pure Country Graphic Index 1659-2018: people countries, color photography; worlds fairs & expositions, paintings; Suprematism & The Bauhaus,” covering everything from magic lanterns to digital sensors, with stopovers throughout Russian Art History and along the Trail of Tears and various interactions between the US Government and the Native American tribes. Overall, it’s a fun study of the subjectivity of color and the strange ways we humans go about reproducing it.

For the most part, Sullivan doesn’t seem particularly interested in faithful color reproduction. He seems to largely reject technological methods of image alignment in favor of simply stacking the negatives or picking one area to align and leaving the rest to fall as it may. I may be looking at it wrong. Some of the pictures are hard to look at, disorienting, headache inducing. There’s a “what the hey is this? Sheesh!” aspect to much of it, and I’m not quite sure that I get it.

I say “I may be looking at it wrong” because Sullivan pays a fair amount of attention to some software written by Blaise Agüera y Arcas to combine Produkin-Gorskii’s separate negatives into color images for the Library of Congress, and Sullivan thanks Agüera y Arcas explicitly on the title page, so maybe the images are all machine-processed and this is the best the software could do?

Apparently, the Agüera y Arcas process makes tiny adjustments to the scans to align parts of the images, remove or average out things that moved, and etc. I can imagine that it might either miss some things or be purposefully manipulated to get some interesting or strange or strangely interesting results, such as those found in Pure Country.

Sullivan also makes sure to note his use of Foveon sensors, which worked in a way almost similar to Tri-Chrome (as apposed to the more AutoChrome-esque Bayer array used by virtually all digital cameras), and which produced far more natural-looking digital images.

Pure Country is one of those books that I’m glad to have, but I’m not quite sure why, that will sit proudly on the shelf (if I ever get shelves large enough to own all the photobooks I’ve collected, or sell enough to make enough space on the current shelves) and that I’ll check from time to time, wondering if I should sell it, and happily hold onto it as part of my art book/theory/lookatthisweirdthing collection for as long as I can stand to have such a collection (running on 20+ years presently, so…). But I won’t really recommend it, not unless you’re interested in color and color theory.


My copy is a second edition, one of 250, and it seems that some copies remain available direct from SUN, so maybe jump on one? The first edition had many more pictures in it. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but this version has plenty, I think.

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