Arts and Sciences

"Quiet Afternoon," by R. Ewing Stiffler, silver print.

Up until the 1960s, people argued in all seriousness that photography was not a fine art because a machine was used to produce it. Today this seems not just naive, but incredibly wrong, as photography is now the predominant form in all types of contemporary art. Photos themselves are a big deal, but they're also the spark of inspiration in the types of painting, printmaking and sculpture that incorporate photographic imagery. Not only that, but the raft of new digital media, including films, video and webcasting, can all trace their origins back to photos.

When photography was developed in the early nineteenth century, the medium was first a part of science, because it relied on scientific inventions. Almost immediately, it was taken up by journalists as an aid to recording the activities of the time. Science and journalism, of course, are still part of the mix, but in the second half of that century, fine artists began to use photos to create preliminary "sketches" for works in other mediums and to create photographs that were art.

In the 1890s, developments in photographic printmaking and the widespread influence of impressionist painting came together to lead to the development of a style called pictorialism. Photos in this style are characterized by soft focus, which gives them an atmospheric quality and sets them apart as art, and not scientific documents or news.

Thanks to the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, the memory of Colorado's place in the pictorialist movement has been preserved and is now on display in Denver¹s Pictorial Photographer, hosted by Gallery Roach. The exhibit, with photos culled from CPAC's important permanent collection, is a solo highlighting the gorgeous work of the late R. Ewing Stiffler, who lived in Colorado in the early twentieth century. Though I've seen a couple of Stifflers over the years at CPAC, the last major exhibition of his work was in 1935, when his photos were presented at the Denver Art Museum. So it's no exaggeration to call the show at Roach a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Stiffler was born in Missouri in 1888 and moved as a teenager to Colorado in 1904. He attended what is now the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley from 1908 to 1911, specializing in fine and industrial art. He subsequently studied at various art schools, including the prestigious Chicago Art Institute.

After graduation, Stiffler bought a wheat farm near Sterling and became involved in public education in that area. In 1921 he moved back to Denver and switched his career to architecture. For a time, he was in a partnership, Jamieson & Stiffler, but mostly he worked on his own until he retired in 1958. He died in 1966 at Denver General Hospital.

The Stiffler photos at Roach date from the 1920s and '30s, and they're absolutely beautiful. The city views, not only of Denver, but also of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other places, are the best exemplars in this show of the classic pictorialist aesthetic. So many of the Stifflers of this type are good that it's impossible to point out all of those worth checking out. Still, a few highlights are "Mystic Manhattan," with the skyscrapers shrouded in fog as seen from inside a dark archway, and "Washington Weather," where the Capitol is depicted as an apparition behind the trees. A few of these city scenes are set in Denver, including "The Memorial," a monumental shot of the Cheesman Park Pavilion in which the structure's white marble columns are so bleached out by the sun that they appear ghost-like.

Stiffler's figure studies and landscapes also fit the definition of pictorialism, but both types seem to be pushing at the edges of the movement and could be called hybrids. In one of Stiffler's best-known images, "Labor Glorified," which depicts two men working on a radiator, there's a whiff of Lewis Hine's heroic staged-documentary style. And there's something almost Margaret Bourke-White about "Quiet Afternoon." But both Stiffler photos also sport those pictorialist standards of reflected light and soft focus, two things neither Hine nor Bourke-White would ever have done -- at least not in the same way.

Some of the most surprising Stifflers are his many mountain landscapes, which provide a wonderful addition to the history of Western scenic photography. "Summer Showers" is out of this world, with a sunlit rainstorm providing a veil obscuring most, if not all, of the mountain range that lies beyond.

Denver's Pictorial Photographer is the first in a series of planned CPAC-sponsored exhibits to be held in various places around the metro area. This crash-pad approach is necessary because CPAC gave up its own gallery this past fall. John Davenport, who works at Roach and serves on the CPAC board, points out that the organization operated without a permanent home in the '70s and '80s and still maintained a presence in the community. That's the intention now, too, and I've got to say that though I've been skeptical about CPAC's future, I think the group is going to pull it off. As long as they consistently put on shows as strong as this Stiffler solo, that is.  

A perfect companion to the Stiffler exhibit at Gallery Roach is From Nordenskiold to Nusbaum: Archaeology, Photography and Tourism in the Early Years of Mesa Verde National Park (whew!), on view in the Western History/Genealogy gallery on the fifth floor of the Denver Central Library.

Taken together, the two raise a number of issues related to the nature of photography and of art itself. The library show is all about photography as used for archaeological documentation, photojournalism or advertising. With only a few exceptions, these photos were not intended to be works of art, as the Stifflers were. But it's impossible to explain today, without a lot of hemming and hawing, why the photos at the library aren't examples of fine-art photography. (And I think that when it comes to art, if it's not explainable, it's not true.) No matter their intentions, these photographers couldn't help but create works of art, as proved by the photos they left behind.

From Nordenskiold to Nusbaum was curated jointly by Thomas Carr, staff archaeologist at the Colorado Historical Society, and Trina Purcell, curator of photography at the Denver Public Library. Carr came up with the idea a couple of years ago, and he and Purcell picked through the extensive photo collections of both the CHS and the DPL to select the pieces.

The Nordenskiold part of the title refers to Gustaf Nordenskiold, a Swedish scientist and photographer who explored Mesa Verde in 1891 and removed many artifacts, which was the custom of the day. He returned to Sweden with maps, drawings, photos and lots of booty, and in 1893 published the first scientific book on Mesa Verde. The Nusbaum part refers to Jesse Logan Nusbaum, who excavated the ruins in 1907 and 1908, and in 1921 became the first professional archaeologist appointed as superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park. Like Nordenskiold, Nusbaum was both a scientist and a photographer. Despite the prominence of the names of Nordenskiold and Nusbaum in the title, there's a lot more to this outing than just their photos and memorabilia.

At first the show may appear small, but that's an illusion brought on by the odd shape of the space. The gallery is an elongated ovoid with the four walls curving in at two ends, meaning that everything hanging on these walls is right in your face from the moment you enter. First impressions aside, however, the exhibit is actually quite vast, and thus very ambitious. Each of the four curved walls contains a separate section of the display. There's no way to know that you're meant to start with the quadrant across and to the right of the entry and to then go around the room in a clockwise direction. Luckily, each of the four sections can be viewed separately and in any order, but I think it would have made more sense to begin the show immediately to the left of the entrance, which is where you'd expect it to start.

The remarkable ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde were rediscovered in modern times, beginning in the 1870s and 1880s. The first photographs of the ruins were taken in 1874 by William Henry Jackson, who's represented here by a number of photos he took later, including a couple of knockout chromolithos from 1889 or 1890. These are hung in the first section, which is dedicated to early explorers and scientists.

The second section, which focuses on preservation and park designation, has some of the best photos in the show, including a breathtaking albumen print from 1911-1912 titled "Cliff Palace" that's the work of an anonymous photographer. Clearly establishing the relationship between these photos and the fine arts is "Kodak House," a gorgeous and clearly pictorial-style photo from 1896 by Thomas McKee.

The third section looks at the rise of tourism, and there are a lot of choice and charming photos, especially George Beam's "Tourists at Balcony House," taken between 1910 and 1930. It's amazing how the inclusion of people changes the very nature of the ruins when compared to the more abundant shots of the structures themselves.

The final part of the exhibit is about mixing science and art, and it includes many more photos of the people of Mesa Verde, both Indians and scientists, many of them taken by Nusbaum. There's also a to-die-for Laura Gilpin photo that's been hung with a colored print based on it. The print decorates the cover of the Civilian Conservation Corps' work plan book from 1933.  

From Nordenskiold to Nusbaum made me think how great it would be if some institution -- perhaps the Colorado History Museum or the Denver Art Museum -- were to mount a major survey of the state's photographic history, including not only the work of the great landscape photographers seen at the library, but pieces by fine artists such as Stiffler, as well. I won't hold my breath, though, because when the topic is art done in our region, there's never enough interest or money to do it up right.

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