Mile High Steel, Marilyn Monroe and Erika Blumenfeld

Photography is highlighted at three central Denver galleries.

A funny thing happened to photography on the way to the 21st century: It went from being degraded as an inferior way to convey aesthetic concepts to one of the most significant aspects of contemporary visual culture. The medium provides the foundation not only for a wide array of photo-based artworks -- from paintings and prints that incorporate mechanical imagery to films and videos that rely on it -- but also a lot of digital media that involves the use of cameras or camera-type devices such as scanners. This burgeoning importance has changed the place of photography in the fine arts and the way people think about it. For example, historic materials that were originally used for commercial purposes look more and more like works of art and less like the advertisements that they actually are.

What's brought this to mind is Mile High Steel: Denver¹s Steel Fabrication Industry During World War IIat Gallery Roach, which is located on Broadway just south of downtown. The exhibit was organized by Dennis Walla, who sifted through the photographic archives of Otto Roach, the mid-twentieth-century commercial photographer who founded Roach Studios -- now Roach Photos Inc. -- in the 1930s. "I wanted to do something on industrial photography," says Walla, "and as I was going through the archives, I discovered that most of it was from the early '40s and the photos were of Denver companies doing work for the war effort." Ultimately, Walla, who is a co-owner of Gallery Roach, selected more than three dozen images related to eleven different metal fabricators, a number of them in what is now the River North area.

These local companies had hired Roach to produce photos that would help them get government contracts. Despite the original intent of the assignment, Roach brought a tremendous sense of artistry to the images. His talent for capturing a wonderfully dynamic composition was boundless. The compelling photos in this show are based on vintage 8x10-inch negatives -- if you can imagine -- that were newly printed this past fall.

"Marilyn Monroe; Toby Beach, N.Y.," by Andre de Dienes.
"Marilyn Monroe; Toby Beach, N.Y.," by Andre de Dienes.

Details

Mile High Steel
Through January 31, Gallery Roach, 860 Broadway, 303-839-5202.

Marilyn Monroe: Beginning to End
Through December 31, Camera Obscura Gallery, 1309 Bannock Street, 303-623-4059.

ERIKA BLUMENFELD
Through December 9, Rule Gallery, 227 Broadway, 303-777-9473.

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There's a great enlargement of a welder working on a steel tank at Eaton Metal Products, with a row of clerestory windows forming a diagonal across the top left that perfectly balances the bright foreground and the even brighter mid-ground where the torch is sparking. This photo, hung on the south wall in the first of three sections of the gallery, is untitled save for where it was taken, as is the case with all of the pieces in Mile High Steel.

There's quite a bit of history to be gleaned from Walla's selections, as well, and some of it is a revelation: It's surprising that there was so much heavy industry in town then, and even more surprising that things like barges were built here and then shipped in pieces all the way to the coast. It was also neat to see Colorado's own Rosie the Riveters, wearing earrings and scarves while packing gunpowder into bullets at Heckethorn Manufacturing Company in Littleton.

Another kind of mid-century commercial photography is the glamour genre, which features shots of models and movie stars that were intended to be published in magazines and are now indistinguishable from fine-art photographs. Some of the best of this type of work is showcased in Marilyn Monroe: Beginning to End at Camera Obscura Gallery, just west of the Denver Art Museum. Gallery director Hal Gould paired the earliest professional photos of Marilyn, done by Andre de Dienes, with images taken right before her death, done by George Barris.

Marilyn was apparently one of the most photogenic people who ever lived, and de Dienes was the first of dozens of photographers to tap into that during her brief but illustrious career. Their association began in 1945 when de Dienes hired Marilyn, then known as Norma Jean Baker, as a model. The relationship changed, and they became lovers, with de Dienes doing many soft-core pieces that were fairly racy for the time. A perfect example is "Marilyn Monroe; Toby Beach, N.Y.," an Iflachrome estate print after an original from 1949. Marilyn plays the bathing beauty, twirling a parasol and recalling the beach photos of the early 1900s -- except that the sex appeal is front and center. Even more sexually charged is "Breakfast in Bed, Belaire Hotel," an archival silver print from 1953 in which a nude Marilyn strikes a peekaboo pose among the bedding.

Though Barris photographed Marilyn as early as 1954 -- as is evidenced by the two marvelous on-set photos of the actress and Tom Ewell filming The Seven Year Itch -- his most important work was done not quite ten years later, with a very different Marilyn as the subject. There are several Barris shots of Marilyn, again on a beach, in which she poses with a blanket covering her body. These 1962 images are known simply as the "Last Sitting" photos, because she died soon after. At the time they were taken, she was making the never-to-be-finished Something's Got to Give.

To bring together the first and last photos of Marilyn is a great idea for the show, and every one of the dozens of images densely hung in the small gallery is worth checking out.

To get back to the present and the more familiar realm of contemporary art, head over to Rule Gallery, where ERIKA BLUMENFELD: Enduring Light is on display. After being closed for nearly nine months, Rule is back up and running, with the rehabbed space looking very swank -- especially with the minimalist works of Blumenfeld only minimally filling it.

The artist, who lives in New Mexico, is a conceptualist who reduces photography to nothing more than light and photo-sensitive surfaces. She doesn't even use a camera, for heaven's sake -- well, not a conventional one, anyway. Instead she builds what gallery director Robin Rule calls Blumenfeld's version of pinhole cameras.

On the south wall is a series of fifteen photos done as Chromogenic prints on corrugated aluminum and collectively titled "Light Recording: Greatest Lunar Apogee/Perigee." These images, realized on photo-sensitive papers, record the relationship of the moon to the earth. The moon can't be seen in the first few shots because it's at its apogee, but it slowly grows in the sequence of photos as it gradually reaches its perigee.

Opposite these is a group dominated by luminous blue fields with glowing golden-white orbs at the centers. These photos are from Blumenfeld's "Moving Light" series of Chromogenic prints on aluminum panels, and they depict the sun as it progresses from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice. Rule has included three of these "Moving Light" photos from a set of 93 -- one was done each day between the two events -- but the entire series is being projected on the back wall in an animated DVD loop.

Between the "Moving Light" photos and the DVD is "Fractions of Light & Time," in which Blumenfeld records the light at various times of day. The pieces at Rule were all done during the last year in Marfa, Texas, which is something of a pilgrimage town for minimalism because of the many Donald Judd and Dan Flavin installations displayed on an old military base there. The images, principally blue with a streak of light on one of the edges, have been hung in a grid of fifteen. Together they are reminiscent of a basket-weave pattern because of the linear character of the light streaks and the bars created by the blue grounds.

Blumenfeld's photos are extremely abstract, as they are composed only of light and dark hues and include absolutely no recognizable imagery. They actually look more like paintings than photos. I thought they were beautiful, though I realize they will have limited appeal for some. But no one can deny that they are perfectly in keeping with the style long associated with this particular gallery, which has maintained a true continuity with the well-established sensibility of the old Rule space.

Robin Rule's new gallery looks really sharp, with dazzlingly white walls, a row of structural columns and a polished concrete floor. If you haven't been there yet, check it out before the Blumenfeld show comes down on December 9.

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