The Many Manifestations of the Color Pink

Lisa Kessler traveled across the country to hunt down images that show pink in America

Pinkie, 2011, The Huntington Art gallery, San Marino, California. Lisa Kessler
The Nutcrackers, 2009. Boston Derby Dames, Women’s flat-track roller derby league. Wilmington, MA. Lisa Kessler
Football Locker Room, 2007, University of Iowa, Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa. Lisa Kessler
Cake, 2009, Baby shower, Jamaica Plain, MA. Lisa Kessler
Tent City, 2008, Phoenix, Arizona. Lisa Kessler
Pink Angels, 2007, Massachusetts. Lisa Kessler
Hotel Bed, 2007, Mississippi. Lisa Kessler
Shrubs, 2007, Alabama. Lisa Kessler
Dead Flamingos, 2009, Massachusetts. Lisa Kessler

Walk through any toy store and the aisle devoted to "girls' toys" will blind you with its preponderance of pink. For reasons that are rooted deep into the commercial psychology of American mass culture, pink is associated with girls and "girly" interests, even though pink used to be associated with boys. The context behind the bright color continues to be a topic of discussion, from Barbie's op-ed defending girls freedom to wear pink if they choose to GoldieBlox and its Super Bowl commercial that targets building toys to girls. 

Despite avoiding pink as a girl, Boston-based photographer Lisa Kessler began a project documenting the color pink in America in the summer of 2007. She has photographed in 23 states, hunting for compelling pink images for her project "Seeing Pink." She usually spent hours or days with subjects ranging from a breast cancer awareness walk to a jail to a baby shower.  Kessler hopes her work will add to this dialogue about the color from a documentary perspective.

One of the first places Kessler began her search for the color pink was at a three-day breast cancer awareness walk, knowing it would be filled with pink. It was there she met the Pink Angel Posse of her "Pink Angels" image. A friend told her about the jail in her "Tent City" photograph in Phoenix, Arizona. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," requires his inmates there to wear pink underwear, socks, flip-flops and towels. 

In the gay community, pink has transformed from a color of hate assigned by Nazis to a symbol of pride in the '70s and '80s. According to Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough in their book Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, "pink came to be adopted for girls and blue for boys in the United States, primarily because of the publicity given to Thomas Gainsborough’s painting Blue Boy and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie when Henry Edwards Huntington paid a small fortune to bring these works to his San Marino [California] museum early in the 20th century." The image in Kessler's show, "Pinkie," shows a young girl lying on a bench in front of this famous painting at the Huntington Art Gallery.

While researching places to photograph the color, she came across the pink locker room at the University of Iowa. The university's previous football coach, Hayden Fry, had been a psychology major and painted the opposing team's locker room pink to calm them down. When the locker room was renovated in 2004, the tradition continued. She decided to drive out to the state to photograph the site. 

On Craigslist, she found a woman looking for pink plastic flamingos. Although Kessler didn't have any to offer, she called the woman who made the post to find out what they were for and explain her project. The hostess eventually acquired her flamingos and welcomed Kessler to the luau party to capture the "Dead Flamingos" image seen above.

Some of Kessler's finds were more serendipitous. In Massachusetts, she saw a woman walking with a pink binder. "I went right up to her and told her what I was working on and asked her why she had a pink binder. And she said she was planning her sister's baby shower," says Kessler. She invited Kessler to the shower and ended up on the right side of Kessler's "Cake" image. 

"For me it's really important that the project is an exploration of the idea of the color. It's not an illustration of a preconceived idea," says Kessler. She has found that when you're exploring something and going in without judgment, "the whole world opens up to you. She was one of those people who, by me just looking for that color, she invited me into her life, into this party."

The results of this project, "In the Pink" is on display at the Danforth Art in Framingham, Massachusetts, through June 15, 2014. Kessler hopes to create a book with photos from her project sequenced with text about the color by poets and authors.

Editor's Note: This post has been edited from its original version to indicate that the exhibition's title is "In the Pink" and it is on display at the Danforth Art institution.

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