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.

Around the corner in the Metro gallery, Milmoe continues his exploration of "Portraits" with candid shots. These spontaneous photographs are distinct from the formal posed photographs that open the show, but they're equally accomplished. A wonderful inclusion here is "Truckers at Erma's," a silver print from the 1950s of two cops and two truckers sharing a table at a roadside cafe. It's one of two photographs from another renowned Coloradan, Myron Wood, who was Gilpin's star pupil. In fact, Wood began studying with Gilpin as a child during the 1930s, when he lived next door to her in Colorado Springs. Like his mentor, Wood, who is now retired, worked mostly in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, creating a large body of stunning landscapes, still-life scenes and candid portraits.

The second half of the "Portraits" section also highlights Ron Wohlauer, a highly regarded contemporary photographer in Denver. Wohlauer is represented by semi-candid shots, but rather than looking in his own backyard for subjects, as Wood did, Wohlauer traveled to Ireland to find people at labor. In the 1997 silver print "Mr. John Brody, Ireland," his lens catches an elderly man taking a break from cutting peat in a field. Though Wohlauer has happened upon a casual circumstance, his composition is highly formal, with Brody heroically taking the center in the manner of a figure in a painting.

The small display devoted to "Photojournalism" is dominated by shots of Marilyn Monroe, including the famous 1952 silver print by Philippe Halsman that wound up on the cover of Life magazine. Though it technically fits the category, from an aesthetic viewpoint Halsman's piece isn't much different from Karsh's slightly older portraits of Churchill, Hemingway and Einstein.

Next up in the exhibit are photos collected under the banner of "Street Photography," most notably a set of Duane Michals's famous sequential photographs. The six-piece gelatin silver print photo series "Chance Meeting" from 1970 captures two men passing one another in an alley. Milmoe is a friend of Michals's and has sprinkled half a dozen pieces by the New Yorker through The Human Experience, including the more recent sequential effort "The Bogeyman" (in the "Modernism" section) and an oil-painted gelatin silver print portrait from 1986, "Natural Men With Natural Forms" (this one under "Experimental Photography").

It might have made more sense to include all of Michals's photos and photo-sequences in the "Modernism" portion of the show, but as with the blurring of the "Portraits" and "Photojournalism" categories, viewers are encouraged to see Milmoe's stylistic dividing lines more as suggestions than clearly defined limits. As the show continues, for example, "Photos of War," which includes a preponderance of Russian works, and a separate "Russian Documentary Photography" section have serious overlaps and are almost indistinguishable. Similarly, at the end of the exhibit, "Modernism" bleeds into "Experimental Photography," with the distinction between the two never being clearly made.

These two final chapters include some of the most unusual material in The Human Experience. "Modernism" begins with the fairly uncharacteristic, nearly abstract photo "Martinique" by European master Andre Kertesz. In this 1972 silver print, a shadowy man is hidden behind opaque glass and set against a background of the sea. The section continues with other big-name historical figures such as O. Winston Link, whose 1954 silver print "Gas Pump" shows a station attendant pumping gas while a train speeds past in the background.

Milmoe finishes off the show with a display of works rendered through unconventional techniques ranging from collage to digital photography. Emerging Denver talent Bryan Boettinger uses pinhole photos for the new three-part montage "Tim," while the more established John Haeseler employs his characteristic photocopy method for 1991's "Arabs and Nurses," a piece in which the artist plays all the parts himself.

Milmoe's lack of a strict organizing theme is a minor disappointment in The Human Experience. But since this show is crowded with so many compelling images, it's a quibble not worth quibbling over.

For those who may have missed NeoNow at Edge a few months ago--and especially for those who didn't--Denver's most promising young artist, Jason Hoelscher, is at it again. Ambient Austerity at the Rule Gallery, a display of new paintings, provides another chance to see Hoelscher's elegant and intelligent approach to what he calls "post-minimalism." Hoelscher, a student at the Rocky Mountain School of Art and Design, from which he will graduate next month, has studied for the last few years with Clark Richert, Denver's shaman of geometry, but Hoelscher has never copied his teacher's unique style. With graduation looming, the sad truth is that Hoelscher may soon fly the local coop, since he's already scored a show that's scheduled for next year at the prestigious O.K. Harris Gallery in New York City. In the meantime, here's a rare chance to see--and buy--an artist's paintings before he gets famous. But hurry, because the Rule show closes Tuesday.

The Human Experience: 20th Century Photography, through April 22 at the MSCD Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee Street, 294-5207.

Ambient Austerity, through April 21 at the Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

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