Rotogravure

The Wohlauer memorial at CPAC provides a prelude to Denver's Month of Photography.

Ronald W. Wohlauer, whom everyone called Ron, was one of those artists who always seemed to be at the top of the visual-art pyramid around here -- until, that is, his untimely death earlier this year. During his long career, which began more than thirty years ago, he was a respected photographer, a master printer and an influential educator.

In a way too poignant note, Wohlauer's latest book of photographs, SMALL ROOMS and HIDDEN PLACES, came out only days after he died, leaving his widow, Elizabeth, with stacks of them. The book, which has been selling briskly, includes photos Wohlauer took during what would be his last few years, as well as images done over the past thirty years. The Colorado Photographic Arts Center used these works to create a beautiful memorial exhibit with the same name as the book, SMALL ROOMS and HIDDEN PLACES: photographs by Ronald W. Wohlauer, which is currently on display at CPAC. Next year, the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture will present a proper career retrospective for Wohlauer.

The Wohlauer solo was organized by John Grant, the public-art program director for the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film. Grant is also the former owner of the long-gone Grant Gallery, once an important center for local photography, which mounted Wohlauer's last solo, 25 Year Retrospective, back in 1992. As many shows as I've seen since, I still remember that one. It started off the same way the CPAC exhibit does, with a photo of Wohlauer done by his wife. I met the artist at that time, and he graciously gave me a tour of the retrospective and shared many of his ideas about photography.

"Trees, Fog and Road: Del Monte Forest, California," 
by Ron Wohlauer, silver gelatin print.
"Trees, Fog and Road: Del Monte Forest, California," by Ron Wohlauer, silver gelatin print.

Wohlauer kept a low profile and only rarely exhibited, so SMALL ROOMS will mark the first time many have seen his work. However, among local enthusiasts, his was a household name. In fact, a who's-who crowd of Colorado photography mobbed the opening, coming to pay their respects. "It was like the old days, before the scene became so fractured," says CPAC director Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff, wistfully. And, I would add, so much larger.

Wohlauer was a Colorado native, born in 1947 in the small town of Akron. He grew up in Denver as part of a prominent Jewish family. Though he became interested in photography while still a youngster, he pursued an academic career in history, earning a bachelor's and a master's degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder and working toward a doctorate at Cambridge University in England. In the early '70s, he started to work seriously in photography and received an M.A. in the subject from the University of Oregon while also studying with Brett Weston in California. The influence of Weston and his father, Edward, is easy to recognize in Wohlauer's pieces at CPAC.

It might be expected that because all of the photos in the exhibit are taken from a single, thin volume, they would all be connected to one other, but they're not; it's a very eclectic group. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they're in black and white. Oh, and they're all expertly printed.

Broadly speaking, there are four main types of images, all in silver gelatin prints, based on Wohlauer's four favorite subjects: the British Isles, the Mountain West, the West Coast and the studio. These are catch-all categories, though, because single topics are manifested in multiple expressions. The studio, for example, refers not only to still-life scenes, but also to female nudes. This makes the show even more diverse than it sounds.

Wohlauer is at his best in the landscape, especially the shots taken around here and in California. They're so Weston-y! In fact, I'd love to see a Wohlauer show that was limited to his Western shots alone. Alas, there are no plans for one, and there likely never will be. Too bad, because their power gets diluted when they're in the presence of his many other modes, particularly the figure and character studies, which are intimate rather than expansive like his landscapes. This means that viewers are constantly forced to change the way they look at the pieces as they go through the show, which prevents it from gaining momentum. But for the discerning viewer, there are many pleasures right from the start.

One of the first images is a fine example of Wohlauer's classic Western landscape, "Tailing Pond: San Juan Range, Colorado," an absolutely gorgeous photograph of the mountain range in the background reflected in the water in the foreground. It's breathtaking, which is the same way I'd describe "Trees, Fog and Road: Del Monte Forest, California." In this shot, the brightly lighted haze in the background is bracketed by the dark silhouettes of trees and brush on either side of the foreground. In very much the same mood is "Roadside Pond: Oregon," in which black trees are juxtaposed with glowing clouds of mist.

SMALL ROOMS and HIDDEN PLACES is not to be missed, and the entire art world, not just the photo crowd, owes a debt of gratitude to guest curator Grant and CPAC for rushing it into production. It's a fitting sendoff for one of Colorado's greatest artists, the late Ron Wohlauer.

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