In Search of Blue Gold

The Colour Journal: the Blue Issue, Alep Publishing, 2023

A road-trip with denim hunter Bret Eaton.

The Colour Journal is a lavish publication that explores colour in art and photography. It has been conceived as a collection of six volumes, each devoted to a single colour: blue, red, yellow, green, white and black. The Blue Issue contains, over more than 400 pages, about twenty contributions by international art historians, writers, anthropologists, philosophers, critics, artists and photographers that start from the colour blue.

Colours have not been approached in a literal way but as a starting point, a pretext to tell bigger stories, a means of revealing the story within the story: we all know Henri Matisse’s Blue Nudes, but who can say the same about Biskra, the forgotten Algerian oasis that inspired him? We may also know about the ultramarine pigment that Yves Klein patented, but who has heard of Edouard Adam, a merchant in Montparnasse who discovered its formula?

The Colour Journal intends to fight against the dictatorship of immediacy, to give depth to the pretty images of fashion magazines and Instagram feeds, to delve into familiar moments of art history and discover what lies beneath, to dig into museum libraries and reveal unseen treasures.

To bring this enterprise to life, we travelled from Idaho to Guangxi, from antiquity to the present day, to bring you a dialogue between forgotten archives and contemporary photography: follow a denim hunter in the American West, visit one of China’s last cultural minorities, peek into Helmut Newton’s private collection of Polaroids and dive into David Hockney’s chlorinated swimming pools.

Works by Giotto, Sassoferrato, Yves Klein, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti, Constantin Brancusi, Helena Almeida, Anna Atkins, William Henry Fox Talbot, Tim Barber, Elin O’Hara Slavik, David McDermott & Peter McGough, Henry Peter Bosse, Arthur Wesley Dow, Frederick K. Coulson, William H. Cades, Jean-Eugène Durand, Paul Burty Haviland, Kenro Izu, Lourdes de Castro, Henri Matisse, Jean Geiser, Auguste Maure, Felix Moulin, John Beasley, Lehnert & Landrock, Hélène Adant, Jacques Majorelle, David Hockney, Julius Shulman, Mel Roberts, Bob Mizer, George Tate, Ed Ruscha, John Divola, Grant Mudford, Reenie Barrow, Jonh Schott, Henry Wessel, Rene Burri, Raymond Depardon, Bruce Davidon, Robert Adams, Mark Swope, Joe Deal, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Lee Friedlander, Bernard Plossu, William Claxton, Charles Brittin, Marvin Silver, Seymour Rosen, Ed Ruscha, Helmut Newton, Cecil Beaton, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, John Vachon, David Abrahams, Jeff Boudreau, Charles Fréger, Alexandre Guirkinger, Robbie Lawrence, Rafard & Roussel, Daniel Shea.

Edited by Benjamin Grillon
Texts by Michel Pastoureau, Benjamin Grillon, David Campany, Tim Ingold, Bertrand Raison, Rosanna Mclaughlin, Liam Hess, Robin Muir, Alexandra Genova, Philonema Epps

Published by Alep Publishing

English edition
24 x 32 cm (softcover)
436 pages (ill.)
ISBN : 978-1-8382377-0-7

© Alep Publishing


In Search of Blue Gold

by David Campany

In her song The Boho Dance (1975), Joni Mitchell offers a whip-smart take on the growing cult of authenticity. She sees how a bogus and corporate world hijacks anything it imagines has integrity. Most often it’s black culture and blue-collar culture that gets raided. Mitchell checks both:

Down in the cellar in the Boho zone
I went looking for some sweet inspiration, oh well
Just another hard-time band
With Negro affectations
I was a hopeful in rooms like this
When I was working cheap
It’s an old romance—the Boho dance
It hasn’t gone to sleep

 But even on the scuffle
The cleaner’s press was in my jeans
And any eye for detail
Caught a little lace along the seams

Mitchell, or her character, is the self-aware and privileged interloper. Feeling fake but seeking truth. She’s wearing denim but not like a worker, and it gives her away. More than satin, silk or velvet, the fabric with the richest and most complex cultural associations is denim. It’s also the one with the closest connection to a single colour. Blue.

Never let anyone tell you what a colour means. Yes, red may well signify danger and death, but its associations with love are just as strong. Green readily connotes planetary health, but it’s also a sign of illness and decay. Colour always means something, no doubt about that, but exactly what is a matter of cultural convention. A colour’s meaning is never entirely fixed, and blue may be the least fixed of all. When it comes to blue denim, it is as much flexible myth as durable fabric.

If the pioneering French critic of popular culture Roland Barthes had been American, I think he would have written about denim: how it derives its name from the French town of Nîmes where it was first produced; how it came to America in the mid-nineteenth century; how the Nevada tailor Jacob W. Davis used copper rivets on the strong cloth to make incredibly hard-wearing clothes, and took his innovation to Levi Strauss & Co.; and how, somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, denim’s associations with work and authenticity got repackaged by Hollywood and the fashion system as a culturally renewable style statement.

Barthes would have also traced the shifting status of blueness. There was a time when making anything blue was expensive. The indigo dye required to colour fabric was once a rare commodity. So was lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone that was powdered to make the intense ultramarine pigment for painting. Imported from Afghanistan, the value of lapis was higher than gold. This meant that for centuries blue was accessible to only a few painters, such as Giotto, who had rich patrons.

By the nineteenth century blue was no longer special. The colour had found its way into all kinds of images and commodities. With denim, it completed its passage from precious to popular. Indeed, denim has now been around long enough to have its own venerable history—and with that history comes an interest in rarity. There are things like jewels and old master paintings that are always rare and precious, and there are things that were once so commonplace they were nearly all thrown away. Magazines. Postage stamps. Packaging. Clothing. Charles Baudelaire once wrote that to really understand a society we must look not to the lives of its rulers, but in its trash.The real gold for contemporary social historians is the common item that by some miracle has survived. Today, some denim items are more prized than you can imagine.

Last year, photographer Daniel Shea and editor Benjamin Grillon met up with the most renowned and resourcefuldenim hunter, Bret Eaton, who has made a living tracking down rare and unusual items. They travelled with him through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho with a question in mind: how do you even start to hunt for old jeans, shirts and jackets? Barreling along in the car, talking constantly, Eaton would suddenly spot a house in some nondescript American town. With the sixth sense that all great hunters develop but cannot explain, he would knock on the door, strike up a conversation and within minutes emerge with a find. How could a box of unused denim from the 1920s have gone unnoticed for so long? We all harbour hopes that someone will appear out of nowhere and point out our hidden treasure, so Eaton has to be wily to get his hands on what he’s after. After two decades of hunting he has built a lucrative business. He sells to a worldwide collector base, and rents vintage items to filmmakers seeking that authentic period feel. 

Eaton’s hunger for rare items has even led him into abandoned mines. It’s hard to miss the irony of prospecting for labouring clothes once worn by those who prospected for gold. But if he can pull out a pair of jeans from 1880, he pulls out that moment in history. Even the maker’s names are evocative: A.B. Elfeft & Company, Underhill, Boss of the Road, Greenbaum Brothers, Stronghold, S.R. Krose, and of course Levi’s.

Daniel Shea’s photographs, shot in black and white and colour, show how Eaton’s own story is also becoming part of the myth of denim. Almost any black and white image of rural America looks old, and denim is photogenic whether or not you can see the blue. Pictured in shades of grey, denim evokes a mix of eras, from the California Gold Rush of 1848-55 to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Today the popular understanding of 1930s America is based on photographs by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, John Vachon and others, commissioned by the government. Their images were made in resistance to the way the country was being pictured at the time: instead of idealising manual workers, they showed hard graft.

Every era of twentieth century America has a particular colour palette, visible in cars and clothes and interior design. Every era has its own photographic palette too. Most of the iconic images of denim were shot in black and white, but today colour photography also has its own historical associations. Shea’s colour images, a little bleached and yellowed, feel like prints left in the sun, fading along with the denim they depict. “Any eye for detail caught a little lace along the seams”, Joni Mitchell sang. Keen observers will notice Shea’s refinement of the time-worn effect. What appears to be a photograph jaded by history is a refined image crafted in the present day. In subtly performing authenticityShea shows us that it is a fantasy, an aesthetic. As they say in show business and politics, if you can fake authenticity youve got it made. If you can procure it from the bottom of an old gold mine, all the better.

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