About Face

There haven't been many negatives this past year for local lovers of photography. The hail of impressive shows began last spring with an exhibit at the Emmanuel Gallery that brought together some of Denver's best talents. Then came a display of photography superstars from the collection of Hal Gould at the Foothills Center in Golden. In the fall, Denver's Singer Gallery presented photographs by modernist giants hounded from Europe by the Nazis. Early this winter, the edgy photographers of the Denver Salon were presented at the Rule Gallery, and more recently, at the Arvada Center, a spectacular and intelligent survey focused on the human figure. Now it's time to add The Human Experience: 20th Century Photography, which looks at facial images, as the latest member of this distinguished group.

The Human Experience, showing at Metropolitan State College of Denver's Center for the Visual Arts, was organized by James Milmoe, one of Denver's elder statesmen of photography. Milmoe made a conscious effort not to duplicate the content of any of the aforementioned shows, and in that regard he did a fairly good job. There are photographers here whose work was in the other shows, but they're few and far between, and only in a couple of cases have identical images been used.

The exhibit isn't a survey in the historical sense, although quite a bit of older material has been thrown in alongside the contemporary examples. Rather, it is Milmoe's personal appreciation for photography that is the real topic. "The show's about the love affair I've had with photography all my life," says Milmoe, and that ardor encouraged him to include work by key historical figures as well as photos by his former students. This all-encompassing vision is arranged in roughly chronological order and placed within various sections with such titles as "Portraits" and "Photojournalism." But since these categories are amorphous, selections easily slide from one into the next.

Highly personal journeys through art forms have their obvious limitations, but few people in the region are better qualified to serve as our idiosyncratic tour guide than Milmoe, who moved to the Denver area from Pittsburgh in 1953. At that time, he'd been a serious photographer for only two years, but, as he points out, "I'd been taking photographs since I was a child--for as long as I can remember." Since his arrival, Milmoe has worked dual careers as a successful commercial photographer and a photography teacher at the University of Colorado at Denver.

"When they hired me in 1959, long before Auraria, I was the first person to teach photography as a fine art medium in Colorado," Milmoe recalls. In the 1960s, Milmoe became the first person to teach the history of photography in the state. At about the same time, he became the first photographer to have his work exhibited by the Denver Art Museum. In the 1970s, in one final bit as a groundbreaker, he became the first photographer to receive the Colorado Governor's Award for the Arts and Humanities.

Milmoe retired from teaching in 1986, but remains active as a commercial photographer. And he brings the weight of his experience to the Metro show. The several rare and valuable photographs he's been able to borrow for the show reflect the important connections he's made over the years with dealers and collectors; locals contributing to the show include Paul Harbaugh, Tony Mayer, Gordon Rosenblum and Ted and Joyce Strauss. Corporate sponsorship for the show was not as easy to come by, however, and Milmoe expresses disappointment that neither Kodak nor Pentax, two companies he has supported over the years, responded to his requests for funding. Luckily for him, local companies stepped in, including Robert Waxman and Pallis Photo.

The show begins with a "Portraits" section, but since almost everything in The Human Experience could be called a portrait, the section is distinguished more by the traditional approach taken by most of the photographers. And it is in this opening section that Milmoe chose to place many of the finest photographs included in the exhibit.

Especially alluring are the three monumental black-and-white head shots by the mid-twentieth-century master of portrait photography, Yousuf Karsh. A gifted practitioner of the character study, Karsh has captured the character as well as the faces of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Einstein. In these posed portraits, the men's faces are seen in gentle lighting that recedes into deep shadows; the technical perfection of the prints is remarkable. Karsh summons up a seemingly infinite array of grays to fill in his crisply focused details.

Clearly, Karsh was a genius when it came to photographic technique and composition. In "Ernest Hemingway," a silver print from the 1940s, the great author with his signature gray beard and heavy turtleneck sweater stares uncomfortably off into the distance. The notorious macho man makes us uncomfortable, too, since he has averted his eyes away from Karsh's lens and in that way also avoids us.

Hung nearby is another historic character study, "George Lopez, Santos carver," a 1945 silver print by nationally famous Colorado photographer Laura Gilpin, who worked here and in New Mexico during the middle part of the century. Gilpin's photograph is beautifully posed and lighted. She has placed Mr. Lopez in semi-profile standing among his carvings; he's off to the left, while a Santo figure held in his hands and another that's hanging on the wall occupy the center. In this way Gilpin makes Lopez's inanimate sculptures essential to her portrait of the living craftsman.

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