That Pioneering Spirit

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

Photography's fortunes are soaring right now -- not only in Colorado, where photography shows are cropping up left and right -- but in the New York-based art magazines, too. The shutter craze has been coming on for a couple of decades, but in the current season, photography is taking an increasingly prominent place in contemporary art, rivaling not just sculpture, but -- dare I say it? -- even painting.

Throughout the many years I've been paying attention to the art scene, I don't remember a time when so many photo shows have been presented. This past summer, the Denver Art Museum hosted both the fabulous Hallmark Collection and the blockbuster Retrospectacle, which is still on display. The latter includes photos and photo-based works in the main part on the first floor, as well as a separate photos-only show on the seventh floor (currently closed for change-out).

Major photo shows have been presented this season at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museo de las Américas, and the Singer, Rule, and Judish galleries, to mention a few. Plus, there's a burgeoning scene of galleries that are exclusively devoted to photography, most notably Camera Obscura. And last, but hardly least, there's the venerable old Colorado Photographic Arts Center, which is celebrating forty years of promoting fine-art photography in Denver.

"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.

When CPAC was founded in 1963, photography was still struggling for recognition. The organization was created to counteract the then-dominant prejudice against photography, and, in particular, the anti-photography mood at the DAM. "[DAM director] Otto Bach didn't think photographs were works of art," says Skip Kohloff, longtime CPAC president. "And the museum wouldn't exhibit them."

The founders included a group of local photographers and photo enthusiasts, such as Eugene Lang, Jim Milmoe, Glen Thrush and Hal Gould. Within a few months, membership increased to over a hundred. At the same time, a permanent collection was started, with gifts from prominent photographers such as Yousef Karsh, Phillippe Halsman and Ansel Adams.

The next year, Gould headed up an exhibition committee that opened CPAC's first gallery space at 1503 East Colfax Avenue; it debuted in 1965 with a Takutaro Tanaka show. The center continued to present exhibits until it lost its lease, two and a half years later. For the next five years, shows were organized in banks, libraries and other ad hoc exhibition spaces. Finally, in 1972, CPAC moved into the space at 1301 Bannock Street, right behind the Denver Art Museum -- the same building where Camera Obscura is now. (In a sense, Camera Obscura is a spinoff of CPAC: It was opened in the '70s by Gould, and became one of the first commercial galleries in the country to focus on photography.)

The center remained on Bannock Street for the next ten years, but in 1982 it was homeless again, and again presented shows in venues around town, including a series of major exhibits at the University of Denver during the 1990s. Five years ago, CPAC found a new home at 1513 Boulder Street.

Looking back over forty years of history, CPAC president Kohloff ticks off the triumphs and tragedies, including the repeated financial troubles that led at one point to the sale of some of the center's permanent collection.

Things are better now, and Kohloff's in a celebratory spirit. "We wanted to kick off our fortieth anniversary with something special," he says. And CPAC's done just that with Betty Hahn, a retrospective examining the innovative work of the renowned New Mexico photographer.

Born Elizabeth Okon in Chicago in 1940, Hahn grew up in Indiana. She was a precocious artist, and at the age of ten had one of her drawings published in Children's Playmate Magazine. She attended the University of Indiana, where photographer Henry Holmes Smith became her mentor. She served as Smith's assistant, completing her MFA in 1966. The following year she moved to Rochester, New York -- a very photo-friendly town because Kodak and Eastman House are both there.

While at a reception at Eastman House, Hahn met Lee Witkin, owner of the Witkin Gallery in Manhattan. The meeting led to her first New York show in 1973, and thus to a measure of fame. In 1976 she was hired to teach photography at the University of New Mexico, where she taught until her retirement in 1997.

Hahn's accomplishments are legion. She was among the first serious photographers to rediscover "lost" processes from the nineteenth century, to use a primitive camera and to add stitching and drawing to her photos. I don't need to tell you that all of these things are ubiquitous features of experimental photography today -- but Hahn started doing them in the 1960s and '70s, before many of today's practitioners were even born.

Hahn's experiments are based on pop art, with her early images pulling pop-art paintings inside out. Pop artists like Andy Warhol were using photography as an important part of their paintings. In response, Hahn did exactly the opposite: She took painterly features and incorporated them into her photos.

"Pop art was a big influence on me when I started," Hahn says. "I saw paintings by Warhol and Rauschenberg; I'm hesitant to put myself in the same category -- they're major, major figures. I took the repetition of the image from Warhol, and the splashy breakdown of the photo from Rauschenberg. Their work made me realize that photography was more open to transformation than I had thought."

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.

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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