Lens Is More

The DAM puts the Hallmark photo collection in sharp focus.

Other photos that were also conceived as scientific documents but which today are regarded as artworks include those of Francis Blake and Bertha Jaques.

Science was only one thing that inspired photographers at the end of the nineteenth century. Davis looks at many other tendencies, especially those that produced the pictorial movement. While scientists like Muybridge were accidentally making art, the pictorialists were pointedly creating it. Characteristics of the pictorial style are soft focus and low contrast between tones.

The works of some of the most important pictorialists are on display at the DAM, including two fabulous photos by F. Holland Day. The first is the diminutive "I Thirst," a glycerin-developed platinum print from 1898. It is a portrait of a model portraying Christ, from Day's "Seven Last Words of Christ" series. The second is "Youth With Staff Shielding Eyes," a platinum print from 1906 of a partially nude male model in a pose and costume suggestive of ancient Rome.

"'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.


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

The second part of An American Century is titled "Abstraction and Realism: 1915-1940." If the earlier photographers were 'reluctant' modernists, this later group is more fully and self-consciously a part of the modern movement.

The early abstractionists are a revelation; their compositions are as cutting-edge as those of the edgiest abstract painters. Take a look at "Design-Curves," by Margaret Watkins, a gelatin silver print of a domestic still life that's taken so close up it looks non-objective. Not bad for 1919. Paul Outerbridge's "Piano Study," a platinum print from 1924, is also fairly non-objective, and the piano, seen at a tight angle, becomes a vehicle for geometric abstraction.

One of the most famous proponents of the realist movement is its founder, Alfred Stieglitz. There are several Stieglitz photos in the show, including two portraits of his longtime companion, Georgia O'Keeffe; a platinum print from 1918; and a gelatin silver print from 1933. Paul Strand and Colorado's own Laura Gilpin are other early realists featured here.

Also in this section are Edward Weston, the artists in his circle and the "f/64" group. And there's work linked to modern art, such as the surrealist photo by George Platt Lynes, "Endymion and Selene," a gelatin silver print from the 1930s.

The third part of the show, "From Public to Private Concerns: 1940-1965," highlights famous post-war photographers such as Minor White, Irving Penn and Eliot Porter.

O. Winston Link's remarkable "Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia," a gelatin silver montage done in 1956, is included in this section. The familiar image shows a speeding train passing by a drive-in theater packed with cars; there's an airplane on the screen. I've seen this Link composition before, in silver print form, but I never realized it was a montage: The airplane on the drive-in's screen is a separate photo that's been pieced in.

The new photographers of the 1960s are here, too, among them Diane Arbus, whose work perhaps connects better with photographers from after 1965. The Arbus on display is a weird one: "A castle in Disneyland," from 1962, is a creepy Arbus-y night view of Sleeping Beauty's castle. Holding their own in this section are blurry New York shots by Roy DeCarava, one from the '50s and one from the '60s.

The show ends with "The Image Transformed: 1965-present" -- "present" meaning the 1990s, when the show was put together.

Although contemporary photography takes many forms, some photographers continue to use traditional methods. Robert Adams is one; he is represented by two Colorado scenes, 1969's "'Frontier' Gas Station and Pike's Peak, Colorado Springs," and 1979's "Longmont, Colorado," both gelatin silver prints.

Adams was a hugely successful photographer who received the MacArthur prize -- the so-called genius grant -- in the 1990s. He lived in Colorado Springs in the 1960s and '70s and studied with the late Myron Wood (who is not in this show). Wood learned the art of photography from early realist Laura Gilpin, providing a direct link between her and late social realist Adams.

Others have left the realm of pure photography and gotten into what's called "photo-based work." Among them is John Baldessari, who is represented by a major piece, "Life's Balance (With Money)," a photogravure and aquatint from 1989-90. Visual artists, too, have used photography in their work, Andy Warhol is an obvious one. The single Warhol in the show is an example of his stitched photographs -- in this case, four gelatin silver prints of Lana Turner that have been sewn together. The piece was done sometime between 1976 and 1986.

The demure quality of the Warhol makes a point: This is a corporate collection, and it's headquartered in the Midwest. To his credit, Davis has not shied away from controversial photographers such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. However, each is represented by work that, while characteristic of the artist's signature style, is extremely tame. The Mapplethorpe is a portrait of a man with a shaved head, the Serrano an example of his blood-immersion pieces.

But it's a minor complaint in a show so filled with riches. To put a fine point on the issue, I believe it's the best photography show ever presented in Denver. It's certainly the best one I've ever seen here.

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