Camera Works

Denver's Month of Photography marches on at Gallery M, Mizel and Robischon.

Photography includes so many different things, it's head-spinning. There are all the various styles, plus a wide array of categories, including, of course, fine-art photography. But over the past couple of decades, it's become all but impossible to separate fashion photography, commercial photography, documentary photography -- and especially photojournalism -- from the fine arts.

Art is exactly what's in store for viewers of Filters of the Twentieth Century: Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans on display at Cherry Creek's Gallery M. It's true that Bourke-White and Mydans were photojournalists, but, intentionally or not, they also made examples of fine-art photography. Both Bourke-White and Mydans were associated with LIFE magazine, as were so many other photographers who are well remembered today for their mixing of art and journalism.

When Bourke-White started as a professional photographer, in the 1920s, the field was still almost completely dominated by men. However, anyone with the money could buy a camera, and this gave many members of outsider groups -- women, Jews, blacks and gays, who were all but barred from more traditional mediums -- the opportunity to do photographs.

"Ministers' Meeting, Rome," by Carl Mydans, silver 
gelatin print.
"Ministers' Meeting, Rome," by Carl Mydans, silver gelatin print.
"Elements: Sky," by Gary Emrich, photo emulsion on 
"Elements: Sky," by Gary Emrich, photo emulsion on glass.


Filters of the Twentieth Century
Through January 31, Gallery M, 2830 East Third Avenue, 303-331-8400

Muscovites: Ilya Ilf and Mark Markov-Grinberg
Through November 4, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360
Through October 30, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298- 7788

At first Bourke-White worked as an industrial photographer recording steel mills, which brought her work to the attention of Fortune magazine owner Henry Luce, who hired her almost immediately. When he started LIFE, in 1936, Bourke-White did the magazine's first cover, "Fort Peck Dam." An estate print of that image is included at Gallery M, along with many others that appeared in the magazine. The exhibit also includes photos Bourke-White took for Erskine Caldwell's 1939 book You Have Seen Their Faces, which was essentially her personal response to the photos of the rural poor taken for the Farm Security Administration, an art-friendly New Deal agency. Bourke-White was active until her death in 1971.

Mydans was born in 1907 and died earlier this year. I had the pleasure of interviewing him when he was in town for his solo show at the now-closed Circle Gallery, and it's an experience I'll never forget. He told one riveting story after another. Like Bourke-White, Mydans was a first-generation LIFE photographer and was adept at mixing aesthetics with the news. Before that, he was one of those FSA photographers to whom Bourke-White responded in her photos for Caldwell's book. The Gallery M show has an FSA piece in a vintage print, "Oldest Son of Family of Nine," from 1935, and it's heart-stopping. A war correspondent during the '40s, Mydans recorded many memorable scenes in Europe and the South Pacific; interestingly, some of them don't even hint at the raging battles. In the elegant "Ministers' Meeting, Rome," which depicts from above a courtyard filled with limousines, only the title sounds an ominous note, as the meeting in question is with Mussolini.

This show could be criticized for being way too crowded, but considering what it's crowded with -- stunning images by Bourke-White and Mydans -- who cares?

After catching the Gallery M show, I took the short drive from Cherry Creek to Hilltop to check out Muscovites: Ilya Ilf and Mark Markov-Grinberg, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. Here, too, art mixes with the news, which makes this show a wonderful complement to Filters of the Twentieth Century. The exhibit was organized jointly by Simon Zalkind of the Mizel Center and David Shneer of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. Noted collectors Teresa and Paul Harbaugh also participated.

Ilf's work is hung on the gallery's perimeter walls, which have been painted white; Markov-Grinberg's pieces are hung on the dividing walls, which have been painted red. Both men held official press positions in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era -- the brutality of which provides a backdrop to their images -- but Ilf was a journalist who took photographs, while Markov-Grinberg was a full-fledged news photographer.

Gallery director Zalkind points out that although Ilf was a committed socialist, the majority of his work reflected the clearly bourgeois pleasures enjoyed by the Soviet intelligentsia. Most of his photos look like snapshots, which is essentially what they are, but a few leave that realm and enter the territory of the sweeping historic event. A good example is the three-panel series "Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior," from 1931, which records the dynamiting of the onion-domed monument. By the last frame, the magnificent edifice is no more than a hill of rubble.

No one would confuse Markov-Grinberg's photos with snapshots, as they're a lot bigger and much more expertly done. And a few of them were printed from negatives that Markov-Grinberg defaced for political reasons. In pieces such as "The Writer Maxim Gorky on Red Square" and "I. V. Stalin and K. E. Voroshelov on the Platform of Lenin's Mausoleum," figures have been removed. In the photo of Gorky, someone in the background has literally been scratched out; in the one of Stalin and Voroshelov, a third of the picture has been masked. Markov-Grinberg did these things in response to the Stalinist purges: When Stalin denounced someone, the photographer dutifully erased their image. Oddly, these accommodations to totalitarianism lend these works a very contemporary feel.

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