Picture This

The role of photography in contemporary art hasn't always been black and white. Although today photography is highly prized, as recently as thirty years ago, many in the art world--including the director of the Denver Art Museum--questioned whether it qualified as fine art at all.

As the story goes, the late Otto Bach, the DAM's director from 1944 through 1974, didn't think photography deserved display. While the museum very occasionally mounted photography shows--an exhibit of Edward Weston in the 1930s, for example--through the mid-'70s photographs were effectively excluded from the institution's walls.

After Bach's departure, however, things changed quickly. Lewis Story, who'd been appointed deputy director in 1969, became acting director on Bach's retirement and soon acquired the first photographs for the DAM's permanent collection. "He selected a group of Ansel Adams photographs," says Jane Fudge, assistant curator for the museum's photography division, "and Adams was so impressed with Lewis that he threw in an extra one--something that would never happen today."

In 1978, the museum created an official contemporary department that replaced an informal one headed up by artist Vance Kirkland on a volunteer basis. From the start, new contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip made her interest in photography clear: Her first acquisition for the department was a photo-based work by John Baldessari, the Los Angeles conceptualist.

By the time Ted Strauss became adjunct curator of photography in 1986, the DAM's collection already numbered in the hundreds. Strauss and his wife, Joyce, endowed the Shwayder Photography Gallery on the mezzanine (now called the second floor) that hosted contemporary exhibits. But in 1992 the Strausses retired to California, and the DAM's first and only photo space closed.

At the same time that Vanderlip and Strauss were collecting contemporary photography, museum director Lewis Sharp, who had taken over in 1988, arranged for the acquisition of a significant group of historic photos: the Daniel Wolf collection. The museum paid $1.5 million for the thousand-plus-piece collection, which includes an in-depth assortment of nineteenth-century landscapes by William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan.

So now the museum had extensive holdings of photography from before the turn of the century in addition to a contemporary collection dating back to the Seventies. In the middle, though, was a big, black hole. When Fudge, an assistant in the Modern and Contemporary department, took over as photo specialist in 1995, she faced the problem of filling that seven-decade gap. It wasn't going to be easy: The lacunae in the DAM's collection coincides with the establishment and development of the modern movement. And as New York auction catalogues reveal, modernism is as costly to acquire as are the works of the old masters.

But Fudge has taken to her difficult task enthusiastically, as demonstrated by Between Two Wars and Beyond, a show of early- to mid-twentieth-century photography currently featured in the Laura and David Merage Gallery. (Laura Merage, a contemporary photographer whose own work is now on display at the Carol Keller Gallery, and husband David endowed their namesake gallery, which opened last year in the first-floor Stanton wing, with $60,000 earmarked for offsetting the cost of displaying photography rather than for acquisitions.)

Between Two Wars and Beyond begins with a ten-piece suite titled "Electricite," by vanguard artist Man Ray. Born in Philadelphia, Man Ray spent much of his career in Paris, where he did painting and sculpture in addition to his work in experimental photography. In 1922 he created his first "rayograms" (today called "photograms") by positioning three-dimensional objects onto photo-sensitive paper. In the resulting images, the ghostly forms of the objects stand out against a rich, dark background.

Technically, the Man Rays on display here are not rayograms, but rather hand-pulled photogravure duplicates. "ƒlectricite" was commissioned in 1931 by a Parisian utility, La Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d'ƒlectricite, which ordered an edition of 500 sets of ten as gifts for its preferred customers. For the suite's pieces, Man Ray took everyday objects and placed them within a modernist composition. In "Salle à Manger," for example, the side of a toaster is set on the diagonal with its cord in an arching loop above. The toaster and the cord are rendered in various shades of white and gray on a background field of saturated black. For "Le Souffle," the image of an electric fan is overlaid with radiating lines suggestive of the breeze the device generates.

"Cuisine" adds a photo-montage element to this combination of an actual object with an abstract one, setting a photo of a roasted duck on a platter in the center of the rayogram background of spiraling heating coils. The absurdist "Le Monde" also joins a photograph with a rayogram: In the foreground of the piece is the rayogram, a light switch on an electric cord; the background is filled with a photo of the moon. The preposterous, somewhat humorous implication is that electricity lights the moon.

Like a number of other pieces in the suite, "Le Monde" reminds us of Man Ray's previous role as a dadaist before he settled on the surrealism of these photogravures. "Lingerie" makes the link even clearer: The piece, based entirely on a rayogram, incorporates Man Ray's best-known icons from his dada period: the electric iron and a mannequin's hand.

"Electricite" is but one example of Man Ray's numerous commercial commissions. "Man Ray published a great deal, including many broadsheets," notes Fudge. His work also showed up in art magazines, helping to spread his influence throughout the United States and Europe in the 1920s and '30s.

That influence is what links Man Ray to the other featured photographers in the exhibit, almost a dozen modernists working at much the same time in Prague, Czechoslovakia. This group of nearly thirty photographs, some by big-time talents, was a partial gift from local collectors David and Sheryl Tippit. The photos economically sketch out the various trends in fine-art photography in Prague from the 1910s to the '40s, supplemented by a handful of pieces from the 1950s.

The show's earliest photo is "Nude," a 1915 double bromoil transfer print by the renowned Frantisek Drtikol, who maintained Prague's most important photo studio in the early twentieth century. The small vertical photograph, carried out in sepia on black, features a posed composition with a nude woman wearing large angel's wings. Drtikol's model is posed provocatively, her twisting posture bringing attention to her bare breasts. "Nude" is an undeniable example of Drtikol's art-nouveau erotica, but it's also a symbolist photo that anticipates surrealism. "Composition: Upward Thrust With Shadows," a 1929 pigment print, is another avant-garde pinup, but this one is art deco. A leaning nude woman, her tanned body dramatically lit in profile, is set before arching, linear shadows.

More radical than either of these is "Figural Abstraction," a gelatin silver print done in 1930, shortly before Drtikol abandoned photography. In this photo, an exaggerated paper cutout stands in for the nude; the figural cutout is seen in the middle of a riot of geometric shadows.

Drtikol was not the only Czech photographer to experiment with abstract photography based on inanimate subjects. In "Composition (Abstraction)," a 1922 silver bromide print, Jaromir Funke shoots a sunlit room appointed with a simple pointed box. Closely related is Funke's "Composition With Picture Frames," another silver bromide print done a few years later in 1925. Remarkably, these Funke photographs function as still lifes and abstractions simultaneously.

Jaroslav Rsssler was among the Czech photographers influenced by modernist abstraction. In "Untitled (Still Life Abstraction With Horizontal Lines and Circles)," a 1925 gelatin silver print, dark forms envelop a lit grid. In a 1931 photogram titled "Paris II," a hand, a flat bar and a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower have been assembled to convey the unmistakable image of the City of Light. Both the composition and the use of the hand link "Paris II" to the contemporaneous work of Man Ray.

Josef Ehm also took abstract photos, including "Kanaly," a 1934 gelatin silver print that offers an artful view of sewer pipes. But Ehm later went on to a modernist naturalism related to American photography. In "Untitled (nude torso)," a gelatin silver print from 1940, he judiciously lights the female figure that appears to be emerging from the shadows. In "Untitled (nude, arms covering head)," another gelatin silver print, the same model is seen in a full-frontal shot, hiding her face behind her hands.

Not all Czech photographers were interested in cutting-edge photography, however. Some were influenced by old-fashioned pictorialism, a corollary to landscape painting. Josef Sudek, one of the most famous Czech photographers, remained a pictorialist throughout his career. This show includes several of his later landscape photographs from the 1950s, including the magical "Jana Soenium Sabor" and the dreamlike "...View from Kampa Island," both gelatin silver prints. Sudek's fame and his conservative approach apparently allowed him to continue his work after the Communist takeover of the 1940s: Nothing about his poetic vision threatened the regime.

Between Two Wars and Beyond also includes an Andre Kertesz photograph given to the museum just a few months ago by longtime donors C. William and Eleanor Reiquam. "Chez Mondrian," a silver gelatin print from 1926, is a large-format photo of a corner of Piet Mondrian's Paris studio. The Hungarian-born Kertesz was living in the French capital at the time this photo was taken; he later came to the United States to live permanently. "Chez Mondrian" captures a serene, though visually complicated, scene. As you'd expect, Mondrian's studio is spartan and extremely orderly--but an unexpected vase of flowers appears near the center of the photo. Flowers aside, Kertesz conveys the rectilinear character of Mondrian's geometric paintings by placing the vertical door frame down the middle of the photograph. Beyond the open door are the corridor's bright, sunlit steps, which roughly align with the studio's blocky dark paneling. "Chez Mondrian" not only shows off Kertesz's brilliant mastery of composition; it also highlights his skill at juggling lights and darks to create a lively picture.

Fudge has performed her own juggling act in pulling together the fine Between Two Wars and Beyond. Although the museum still has a long way to go to fill out its photography collection, getting the work of Man Ray, Kertesz and several illustrious members of the Czech modern movement is a good start.

Let's watch and see what develops.

Between Two Wars and Beyond, through June 6 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-4433.

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