Exposure brings the Denver Art Museum's photo collection into the light
Former Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp, who retired at the end of 2009, really made his mark on the place. The most obvious example of this is the Hamilton Building, which nearly doubled the museum's exhibition space. Less obvious is the way he reorganized the DAM's internal structure, recasting some areas — the modern and contemporary works, for example — and inventing new ones. In 2008, Sharp launched the last of these changes by establishing the department of photography and media arts and hiring well-known photo curator Eric Paddock to head it up.
The founding of the department had been sparked four or five years earlier by a group of enthusiasts, including Evan Anderman, John Grant, Robert Lewis and Anthony Mayer, son of the late Fred Mayer, a major donor and collector. Today, thanks to funding by the younger Mayer and his wife, Delisa, there is a permanent photography gallery on the seventh floor of the Ponti building. In addition, Paddock plans to mount several major exhibits that will be displayed in the changing galleries in the Hamilton.
And although the photo department was only launched in 2008, the DAM has been collecting photos and other photo-based pieces since the 1930s; they were simply cached in other departments, mostly modern and contemporary, but also in Asian art, painting, Native arts and architecture, design and graphics. It also seems necessary to point out that there have been previous curators who have been photo specialists at the DAM, notably Ted Strauss, Jane Fudge and Blake Milteer, all three of whom operated within the confines of what was then the contemporary department.
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Paddock, who served as photo curator at the Colorado Historical Society for 25 years before moving to the DAM, is a Colorado native who grew up in Boulder. He earned his BA from Colorado College and his MFA in photography from Yale. After joining the DAM, he began evaluating the 7,000-some pieces. "I spent about a year and a half wading through the collection. I gave the pictures letter grades, based primarily on condition," he says. "Then I went back through a second time, going through all the As and all the B-pluses, and winnowed things down into some kind of workable list."
The idea behind his inaugural show, Exposure: Photos From the Vault, was to demonstrate how long the museum has been collecting photography. "We have some really astounding work," says Paddock. "We have pieces that qualify as masterworks. We have some things that are really surprising by people who are not that well known in the art world, and by some who are not that well known even in the photography world."
In surveying the collection, Paddock realized it was very uneven. There are major strengths — notably, a full set of more than 600 images from Eadweard Muybridge's famous motion studies; a stunning group of late nineteenth-century Western images from the Daniel Wolf Collection; a nice selection of modernist Czech and Eastern European photography; and a solid group of works from the '80s and '90s. These newer images were mostly acquired by Strauss, who, in addition to being an adjunct curator in contemporary art, was a wealthy donor with lots of generous friends.
But there are some major holes. Paddock believes the museum could strengthen its holdings of work by the important photographers of the pictorialist movement and by the influential members of the Photo Secession. In addition, there are virtually no Farm Service Administration photos from the 1930s, and he'd really like to get some.
The problem with these particular gaps is the photo market, which has soared in recent years and put the price of many of the photographers Paddock would like to collect way out of the DAM's reach. "If I had $1 million for acquisitions, I'd have to decide whether I wanted to get a great Stieglitz or hundreds of other, less valuable photos," Paddock says. This is why it would be impossible for him to have put together a credible show on the history of photography. Exposure is something different, being made up of a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
As could be expected, there are quite a few Western landscapes by the pioneers of that field, including Frank Jay Haynes, John Hillers and Carleton Watkins. And there are a number of well-known photos by hugely famous modern photographers. There's Diane Arbus's "Identical Twins," in which the photographer lends her patented creepiness to a subject that otherwise would be sweet. There are a couple of iconic Ansel Adams pieces, "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite" and "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico"; and a pair of famous street scenes by Garry Winogrand, "American Legion Convention, Dallas, Texas" and "New York City, New York (Laughing Woman With Ice Cream Cone)." The Alexander Rodchenko, "Caricature of Ossip Brik," is spectacular, as is Petah Coyne's "Untitled 735."
Many of the photos have been thematically organized. There are some that depict straightforward views in one half of the gallery, and there are conceptual photos in the other half. "There are enough photos in the collection to do a show like this twice more, but that's not going to happen," says Paddock, who has other future plans for the space.
An additional important feature of the exhibit is the inclusion of many Colorado photographers, and I thought this was great — if not wholly unexpected, coming from a curator who spent most of his career at the CHS. "The show proves that Colorado work can stand side by side with international material, and if the show had just been about Colorado photography, you wouldn't see that," notes Paddock. There are many Colorado photographers whom Paddock would like to see in the collection, but he would only name them off the record. "I don't want their prices to go up, because I want them," he says with a laugh. Interestingly, one Colorado artist is absent from the exhibit, though the DAM has a large collection of his work. That would be Herbert Bayer. "Leaving Bayer out was not an oversight," says Paddock, "but I felt that his photos had been seen at the museum before, and I wanted to focus on works that hadn't been seen before."
One of the Colorado photographers included is Kevin O'Connell; his "Untitled (CE-901)," a color digital print on aluminum, is one of the genuine standouts in Exposure. Though it is clearly a landscape, the forms of the structure in it are orchestrated into a constructivist abstraction. It is part of O'Connell's extensive exploration of energy sources that were exhibited last summer at Robischon Gallery and at MCA Denver.
Other artists associated with Colorado who appear in Exposure include Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, Ronald Wohlauer, Robert Adams, Laura Gilpin, George Woodman and Wes Kennedy. The Kennedy photo montage, "Saint Michael," was acquired right before the show opened. Kennedy, who died from AIDS in 1993, was a gifted artist who took on the big topics of life, sex and death. In this piece, all three issues are combined in a wrinkled clutch of photos that have been touched up with acrylics and mixed mediums.
I guess it could be said that it's about time the DAM got around to giving photography star billing. On the other hand, that means Paddock is just beginning, so we've got a lot more great stuff to look forward to.
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