Lens Is More

The DAM puts the Hallmark photo collection in sharp focus.

The spectacular blockbuster exhibit An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital, which highlights the photo collection of Hallmark Cards, is a third of the way through its three-month run at the Denver Art Museum. Denver is the seventh and last stop for the traveling show.

Hallmark, the world's largest greeting-card producer, has been a corporate art collector since 1949. The photo collection, which comprises 5,000 pieces -- nearly 250 of them are seen in An American Century -- is just one of several put together by the Kansas City-based corporation. Others are devoted to contemporary painting, sculpture and ceramics.

Those with limited exposure to photography will probably recognize about a dozen shots in An American Century, and those with a passing interest in the field may recognize a hundred. But here's the twist: In a mammoth show such as this one, even viewers who are deeply knowledgeable about photography will see things they've never seen before.

"'Frontier' Gas Station and Pike's Peak, Colorado Springs," by Robert Adams, gelatin silver print.
"'Frontier' Gas Station and Pike's Peak, Colorado Springs," by Robert Adams, gelatin silver print.

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Through September 29, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000.

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"The collection has so many rare and unusual images," says Blake Milteer, photo assistant for the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department. The exhibit includes works by both famous and little-known photographers, Milteer notes, and many pieces are the finest examples imaginable.

The historic sweep of the show is breathtaking. Working their way through the DAM's Hamilton Galleries, visitors take an informed gambol from the 1880s to the 1980s -- the hundred years of the show's title -- plus a bonus: a handful of things from the 1990s.

As longtime readers of this column know, I believe that chronological organization within stylistic categories is the best way to survey historic material. The chief alternative is the invariably unsuccessful thematic structure, in which pieces are linked according to subject matter. Putting portraits in one room and landscapes in another is an anti-intellectual approach meant to attract a non-art audience; nonetheless, theme shows have been all the rage across the country -- and at the DAM -- over the past few years. Chronological ordering introduces important content such as historic context and aesthetic development into an exhibit. In a thematically organized show, there is no intellectual content -- which, I guess, is the point.

Hmmm. An intelligently and beautifully organized collection crowded with well-known masterpieces and esoteric gems. Hey, wait a minute -- these are the hallmarks of a nearly extinct breed: the connoisseur. In fact, just such an aesthete and scholar is at the helm at Hallmark: fine-art program director, curator and historian Keith Davis.

Davis was originally hired in 1979 as curator of the Hallmark Fine Art Collections. At the time, the photo collection (which was initiated in 1964 with the acquisition of selected works by Harry Callahan), was midsized, with 600 photos. Davis not only expanded the collection to its present size, but shaped it in the process.

Davis was already a photo expert when he arrived at Hallmark, having been a graduate student of the legendary Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s. Newhall, the founding photo curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, had made UNM an important center for photo history. While in grad school, Davis also worked as a researcher at the George Eastman House in New York, another place that championed the history of photography.

In the 1970s, appreciation for photography was just getting a substantial foothold in the academic and art worlds. Until then, interest in the form had been limited to the work of specialists. Davis was part of a new wave of photo historians, and the legacy of his generation is evidenced by the vaunted position of photography in the fine arts today.

Davis organized the Hallmark exhibition and was involved to an unprecedented degree for an out-of-town curator, down to the show's installation and the content of the wall text. And because he is a connoisseur, he spent no time thinking up cute gimmicks like try-me-on costumes or sit-with-me games -- things that so often muck up DAM-organized shows and distract viewers from the art itself.

An American Century is divided into four sections, each representing a period of approximately 25 years. It fills at least nine galleries and additional connecting spaces. It's so vast that you might want to see it twice, as I did, to absorb it all.

The first section, "A Reluctant Modernism: 1885-1915," focuses on photographs made with the then-revolutionary dry-plate printing process. Previously, wet-plate printing with glass-plate negatives had been the norm. The wet plates needed to be developed immediately after exposure, which meant, for instance, that photographers of the 1870s had to travel with their darkrooms in tow.

The development of dry-plate printing and other technological advances, including the invention of roll film and the introduction of small portable cameras, sparked an explosion of interest in photography. Davis begins the show by looking at the practitioners who embraced these technical breakthroughs.

At the time, many photographers inadvertently created art while doing scientific work. One famous example is Eadweard Muybridge, who was interested in recording movement in still photographs, which made him a motion-picture pioneer, too. The signature Muybridge in the Hallmark show, "High Jump," is a collotype print from 1885. For this functional but elegant photograph, Muybridge took a series of twelve carefully timed and evenly spaced shots of a near-naked man carrying out a high jump.

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