Hocus Focus

Photo magic is in the air this fall.

There's a dizzying array of notable photography shows in Denver right now. And while photographs are always on display somewhere in town, it's hard to recall an autumn with so many photo and photo-based shows as season openers.

There are a number of reasons for this. During the past thirty years, the mechanical reproduction of images has been thoroughly integrated into the pantheon of fine arts. This was the result of a successfully fought century-long campaign by photographers, curators and dealers. In addition, in the age of abstraction and conceptual art, photography is able to incorporate recognizable subjects and objects and still remain completely contemporary -- something that's much harder to do with painting and sculpture.

At a place called the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, you'd always expect to see a photo show, at this or any other time of year. The current CPAC offering, Œevidence¹, was organized by gallery director Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff.

"Saul," by Norma Quintana, gelatin silver print.
"Saul," by Norma Quintana, gelatin silver print.
"Peas on a Plate," by Sandy Skoglund, Cibachrome print.
"Peas on a Plate," by Sandy Skoglund, Cibachrome print.


Through October 19
Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1513 Boulder Street

Sandy Skoglund
Through November 2
Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway

Kohloff's theme for the show was documentary photography in traditional black and white. She chose three photographers -- one from Colorado, and two from California. The work of each is explored in depth, and, as Kohloff observes, each takes a different approach to the medium.

First up is Michael Mowry of Littleton. Mowry's pieces, a group of untitled photos from his recently completed "Eight Days in Nanjing" series, are hung on the wall immediately to the left inside the front door and on the wall around the corner. The photos record a trip he took to China in summer 2001.

As Kohloff points out, the photos are candid; Mowry's subjects were unaware of his presence, let alone his interest. According to Mowry, the people of Nanjing were wary of foreigners, especially those with cameras, so most of these were taken from a moving taxi.

In spite of the slapdash method, Mowry got a lot of beautifully composed photos with a tremendous amount of narrative content. There are children playing, people walking, vendors selling goods from open stalls, even homeless people sleeping on the street. The idea was to construct a montage of unrelated images that, taken together, convey the city in its totality.

Taking candid photos of life on a city's streets is hardly something new, but one very up-to-date aspect of Mowry's photos is his use of computers to make them. Although film was used for the originals, Mowry scanned the photographs, enlarged the images on a computer, and then printed them out on a laser printer. Laser-printed images invariably disintegrate somewhat, a feature that works well with the grittiness of many of these scenes.

Following Mowry is Norma Quintana, a California photographer with a totally different approach. For one thing, her photos are posed, not candid. She also zeroes in on a single topic over a long period of time rather than many topics over a few days. And she produces good old silver gelatin prints, not computer prints.

For the last four years, Quintana has taken portraits of the members of a multi-ethnic traveling circus called Circus Chimera. (Coincidentally, when 'evidence' opened last month, Circus Chimera was appearing in Golden during its annual multi-state tour.)

The photos are remarkably engaging; Quintana has obviously developed a rapport with the performers during their numerous shooting sessions. In many of these pictures, the subjects look straight out at the viewer. An example is "Saul," a photo of an acrobat in ratty tights who, despite his eye makeup, looks fairly menacing. In others, the subjects look away. "Circus Toddler" portrays a severe-looking woman in a preposterous outfit that's part mod and part medieval. She's holding a small child, and both mother and child wear the same impassive if not taciturn expression. In still others, the performers themselves are secondary to props -- as in "The Fan," in which a man is draped over a huge exhaust fan.

Quintana contrasts the serious poses struck by the performers with the lighter context of the circus, reinforced mostly through her subjects' outlandish costumes.

The last photographer in 'evidence' is Claudio Cambon from California, whose work is installed back in the main room. Cambon does not paint with Mowry's broad brush or take an up-close look like Quintana; instead, he tells a coherent story from start to finish.

For these photos, Cambon followed the process by which an oil tanker, the American "SS Minole," was scuttled. He took the ship's final cruise, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Chittagong, Bangladesh, and poetically recorded it. After being beached, the ship was manually dismantled by the poverty-stricken workers of Fahad Steel Industries.

Cambon uses the ship's enormous size as a key element in his pictures, some of which are completely dominated by its dramatic and sculptural form. Others highlight the workers: hundreds of men and boys, many of them barefoot and wearing no protective gear of any kind, doing extremely dangerous things such as climbing over the towering ship's hull, cutting it up with torches and lowering massive pieces to the beach with ropes and pulleys.

It's a topic I knew nothing about before I saw these photos. One of Cambon's objectives is to raise awareness about the issues of developing countries.

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