That Pioneering Spirit

CPAC is forty, and groundbreaker Betty Hahn is the guest of honor.

The CPAC show includes three of these early pop-art works from the 1960s, "Inner Rainbow," "Processed by Kodak" and "Multiple Landscape #2." In these pieces, Hahn's style looks like a cross between Warhol's and Rauschenberg's. But her real breakthrough was her chosen method, gum bichromate, an off-the-wall process that was long out of favor when she revived it -- the first of her many rediscoveries. "I was interested in all kinds of non-silver processes," she says.

In the early '70s, Hahn began to add stitching to her photos, which she was printing on fabric. "My sister and I were in London, and we went to the Victoria and Albert, and we looked at the fabric pictures," she says. "They're on pullout racks, hundreds of them -- pictures done in fabric and thread. I realized I could meld two folk-art forms -- needlework by anonymous women and snapshots -- and I started doing fabric photos. I was just starting out, and I had nothing to lose. At the time, there was this big split between high art and low art, between art and craft, between women's art and men's art. When you can find a split, you can complain about it and find more things to do. Thirty years later, things are different, and there's not that split anymore."

The show has a small selection of these fabric photos, in which colored thread is used to fill in some of the details. They're amazing and look like pop embroideries. In a conceptually related piece, "Soft Daguerreotype" from 1973, Hahn has created a reproduction of a daguerreotype, complete with its case. But instead of a metal plate, she uses cheesy silver polyester that's been printed over with a Xerox photocopy of a landscape.

"Stargazer Lily," by Betty Hahn, color photograph.
"Stargazer Lily," by Betty Hahn, color photograph.
"Albuquerque, NM," by Betty Hahn, color photograph.
"Albuquerque, NM," by Betty Hahn, color photograph.

In the mid-'70s, Hahn began creating her most famous photos, which were based on found images of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The show includes a group of these early examples, as well as recent variations in color laser prints transferred onto glazed slip-cast ceramic plates from the 1990s. Hahn chose to explore the famous cowboy and his Indian companion because she loved watching The Lone Ranger on television when she was a girl. "I never did a picture without a photographic base," says Hahn, "I love photography, but I always started out with personal images, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto are part of my childhood."

Hahn was constantly searching for new approaches to photography, employing out-of-date printing methods, carrying them out in novel materials, and looking to pop culture for new subjects. But she wasn't finished yet. In the mid '70s, Hahn purchased a Mick-a-Matic camera -- made for children, it's in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head with a flashcube set between the ears. The use of a primitive camera like the Mick-a-Matic put Hahn on the cutting edge of the medium, because simple cameras -- but perhaps not the highly collectible and valuable Mick-a-Matic -- are now a common feature in the world of contemporary photography.

The primitive camera, with its somewhat fuzzy lens, produces a picture with a soft field of focus and, consequently, an atmospheric quality. Blown up in monumental and gorgeous Ektacolor prints, Hahn's Mick-a-Matic photos become iconic, as in "Albuquerque, NM," from 1978, which depicts a fiberglass horse's head against a deep blue sky. Honestly, these photos could be brand new -- they look that fresh.

Hahn also embraced very sophisticated cameras, like the large-format Polacolor, a Polaroid that takes twenty-by-twenty-four-inch self-developing photos. The show at CPAC has several of these from Hahn's "Botanical Layouts," done in the 1970s and '80s, in which she laid flowers on top of pseudo-nineteenth-century book pages. The crispness of these images, so different from the softness of the Mick-a-Matic photos, is dazzling. And the juxtaposition of the real flower with the book page is remarkable, creating a lot of visual tension, as in "Stargazer Lily," a Polacolor II print from 1988.

The show at CPAC demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hahn is an important pioneer in contemporary photography. So much of what she did -- only a tiny sample of which is in this exhibit -- has influenced subsequent generations. So the next time you see a photo done in an old-fashioned, non-silver technique, or one that's been stitched, or one that's been taken with a simple camera, think of Hahn. I know I will.

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