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.
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.
Ilf and Markov-Grinberg did not consider themselves artists, but that didn't stop them from making art.
Discussions about the nature of fine-art photography are irrelevant to the three shows at Robischon -- FAR AFIELD, AWAY OUT OVER EVERYTHING and CONFIGURATION -- because each of the photographers represented intended to create fine art from the get-go. However, with a few exceptions, their work is really not so different from what Bourke-White, Mydans, Ilf and Markov-Grinberg were doing -- theoretically speaking, that is.
The first of the three exhibits is FAR AFIELD, which is a landscape show -- or, perhaps more accurately, a show about the culture's effect on the landscape. An international cast of artists from Europe and across the country has been assembled, so many of them will be new to Denver art audiences.
The first images are by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The elegant photos are grandly scaled enlargements in beautifully done chromogenic prints. Burtynsky's topic is the ravaged landscape, and his works include a trio of shots of the Carrara marble quarries in Italy and one of a wrecked village that was destroyed as part of the Three Gorges Dam project in China. These photos have a monumental quality and an anti-heroic edge. The scenery dominates them, but the people doing the damage to it are the true subjects.
English photographer Richard Pare's digital inkjets also pick up the theme of nature under attack. Pare examines industrial sites in Marghera, Italy, and in Moscow. Adjacent to these are a dozen small chromogenic prints by Italian photographer Guido Guidi, who somehow manages to record beautiful shots of non-picturesque scenes in the backwaters of Italy. Interest in the sociological rather than the aesthetic makes these perfect companion pieces to those of Burtynsky and Pare.
FAR AFIELD subtly shifts gears as it continues on to the middle space with Ruth Thorne-Thomsen's lyrical and poetic images, which conjure up a romantic and remote past. Thorne-Thomsen lives on the East Coast and became famous for pioneering low-tech photography, such as the use of pinhole cameras. In the '80s and early '90s, she taught at the University of Colorado at Denver and sparked a scene that was made up almost exclusively of her students. Across from the Thorne-Thomsens are gelatin silver prints by her husband, Ray Metzker. These pristine natural scenes mark an enormous change in Metz-ker's signature urban style.
Displayed on a wall shelf between Thorne-Thomsen's and Metzker's images are a group of intriguing photo-based sculptures by Denver's Gary Emrich, the head of the photography department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. In them, pictures are printed directly onto the lenses of wire-framed glasses. In "Elements: Sky," Emrich transferred images of storms that he took from television broadcasts, and in "Elements: Flame," the found broadcast images are of wildfires.
According to Jim Robischon, who owns the gallery with his wife, Jennifer Doran, FAR AFIELD was not originally intended to be so landscape-heavy; it just sort of happened. "We really meant the title to mean Œafield' in a number of different ways, and not only be about the landscape," he says. "But it's hard to get exactly what you want when you bring in so many guest artists." As things started arriving, submissions fell into two categories, landscapes and images of the figure. The answer was obvious: Divide the work into two shows. CONFIGURATION, the exhibit in the Viewing Room, was the answer.
The figure, like the landscape, is one of the old standbys in photography, which makes it difficult to do something that looks new. George Woodman, who used to live in Boulder and now divides his time between New York and Italy, and Toronto's Janieta Eyre pull it off through multiple exposures. For Eric Schwartz, it's highly toned computer-generated colors. Schwartz's "Faith I," a life-sized shot of a priest, dominates this show because of its iconic presence. Nearby are Emrich's group of paintbrushes with photo transfers of women taken from paintings by Titian.
Back toward the front, in a small side gallery, is Away Out Over Everything, a Mary Peck solo made up of panoramic photos of the unalloyed beauty of the Northwestern scenery. Taken with panoramic cameras, these gelatin silver prints have an elongated horizontality, which provides the perfect analogy for the landscape itself.
Taken together, the three Robischon shows include something like eighty photos. This may seem daunting, especially in light of all the other photo shows around town, but the length and depth of the medium is so vast, there's something to interest everyone. Well, except for those who've whined that Denver's inaugural Month of Photography has them "photo'd out." Then again, these are the same people who are ceaselessly battling attention deficit disorder.
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