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It's been a hectic few weeks for Carol Keller, director of the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus. When she hasn't been scrambling to protect a permanent collection of photographs from art thieves, she's been pulling a few capers of her own--in her case, perfectly legal ones.

First, the thievery. A baker's dozen of important photographs has just been reinstalled in an inner lobby of the University of Colorado's classroom building at Auraria. The collection, which includes works by the likes of Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott, had been out of circulation for more than a year, and we finally know why: It seems that somebody stole four of the photos, which have never been recovered. As a result, the remaining pieces were removed to the safety of storage while a new security system was devised--the photos are now bolted to the walls.

The reinstallation of the photos was supervised by Keller, who at precisely the same time was getting ready for the opening at Emmanuel of the exhibit Visions: Contemporary Colorado Photography. Keller's right when she describes the juried show as one of the best things the gallery has presented in the last few years. And she admits to being surprised by the happy turn of events. "You never know with a juried show," she says. "Who's going to enter? What will the juror do? But in this case, everybody came through."

Though Keller installed it, Visions is largely the work of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, a Denver-based nonprofit whose heart and soul are photographers Skip and Lizbeth Kohloff. CPAC's sole purpose is the advancement of photography in the mountain region. Toward that aim, the group has for more than 35 years sponsored exhibits, lectures and seminars and assembled a permanent collection of more than 600 photos. The collection, which spans the history of the medium, is housed at the Colorado History Museum.

Entry in the Visions exhibit was limited to Colorado artists, each of whom was allowed to submit up to five slides. It was then left up to nationally known photographer and University of New Mexico photography professor Patrick Nagatani to sift through the nearly 700 slides that poured in. It took Nagatani five days to separate the wheat from the chaff and select the 52 photographs by 40 photographers that the show comprises.

Nagatani viewed the slides with what is known as the "blind" approach, meaning that he wasn't told the names of the artists or given any other information about the pieces. The idea behind the blind method is that the juror will tend to make his choices on artistic merit alone. That wasn't quite what was done by Nagatani, who based his selections, according to his written statement, on the touchy-feely vagaries of what "moved" him. Some choices appealed to him "psychologically, others emotionally, and most visually," he wrote. How enlightening. Still, it's hard to argue with the high-quality show that resulted from his idiosyncratic approach.

The true revelation in Visions is that Colorado photographers are embracing a wide variety of styles. They range from directly printed black-and-white or color photography to more up-to-the-minute methods such as computer-generated imaging. But viewers won't be surprised to find that most of the best things in the exhibit come from that old standby of fine-art photography, the black-and-white shot.

A case in point is the platinum palladium print "Untitled," by Denver photographer Kevin O'Connell, an atmospheric landscape in which a cloud-streaked sky hovers above desolate plains. Though quite small, O'Connell's photo has a big presence, owing to the sublime beauty of the scene and the blurry details and grainy texture he achieved in the darkroom.

Shaun Gothwaite, a well-known figure in Denver circles, has also dispensed with clarity in a striking pair of silver prints, "Blackbirds" and "Medicine Wheel Offering." But whereas O'Connell gets his vaporous effect through printing techniques, Gothwaite gets hers by taking direct transfers from pinhole negatives, a method in which she was a local pioneer. "Blackbirds" reveals a sky dotted with black streaked smudges--the blackbirds of the title. In "Medicine Wheel Offering," a heart-shaped form is pierced by a wire. Both pieces are from a series Gothwaite dedicated to her late husband, Louie Aran.

Denver's David Sharpe is also interested in primitive photography. For the pinhole photograph "Estimation of Vacance," Sharpe has taken two small, bright shots of dry land and positioned them on either side of a large, dark, gloomy view of mountains. According to his written statement, "Estimation of Vacance" is about society's disregard for water--the same topic, by the way, that Sharpe addresses in a solo show that closes this weekend at Spark gallery.

Mark Sink is another prominent Denver photographer who made the cut for Visions, but he's no primitivist. Unlike Sharpe or Gothwaite, Sink uses a conventional modern camera. In the silver print "Lani Above Shannon," he has posed four young women in a roughly circular arrangement, their nude forms barely emerging from the dark black background. Though Sink has chosen attractive young models with breasts bared, he has shot them slightly out of focus and placed them in an ominous and unnerving dream-like setting, thus draining them of even a perfunctory eroticism.

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