Perhaps because of its majestic scenery, or maybe because the skies are not cloudy all day, Colorado has become, in the twentieth century, an important regional center for fine-art photography. What's most remarkable about this wonderful state of affairs is that photography has flourished here in the near total absence of institutional support for it. Rarely are Colorado photographers seen on the walls of the Denver Art Museum or the Colorado History Museum, or even Denver's upstart Museum of Contemporary Art. As a result, monographs on individual photographers have also rarely been written--and there have been even fewer historical or contemporary surveys.
It is lucky for us, then, that supporters in the city's private sector have nurtured the local photo scene over the years. None of these enthusiasts is more notable than the revered Hal Gould, director of the Camera Obscura Gallery. Both Gould and his retail outlet are nationally known.
Gould is currently presenting Ferenc Berko: Sixty Years of Photography, which examines the career of a world-famous Aspen photographer. Berko's name should be a household word to those of us who live around here; that it isn't is the ignoble legacy of our art establishment's failure to chronicle the local photo scene. Thank goodness for the likes of Gould.
The Berko exhibit is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective. The photographs have not been displayed in chronological order, so it's left to viewers to follow Berko's stylistic development. That evolution is complicated, since he explored candid street photography as well as posed and staged compositions, apparently simultaneously; and he worked in the typical black-and-white at the same time he was experimenting with color.
Berko was born in Hungary in 1916. He was soon orphaned; family friends adopted him and raised him in Frankfurt, Germany. His new parents were interested in art and involved in the contemporary culture, so Berko came to know many of the great modern artists working in Germany in the 1920s, including fellow Hungarian Laszló Moholy-Nagy. As a young man, Berko also knew Paul Wolff, the inventor of the 35-millimeter camera. At fifteen, Berko began to teach himself the art of photography and film, and by the age of sixteen, he was creating credible avant-garde photographs.
With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s, Berko's guardians sent him to live in London in 1933 and Paris in 1934. He eventually went to India, where he remained until the end of World War II. Then his old friend Moholy-Nagy invited him to join the faculty of the nascent Institute of Design--essentially the transplanted Bauhaus, which had relocated to Chicago after the Nazis closed it down. (Today Chicago's world-famous engineering and architecture school is called the Illinois Institute of Technology.)
Unfortunately, when Berko arrived in Chicago in 1946 to teach film, Moholy-Nagy had died. In 1949, Berko, then a teacher at the institute, made the acquaintance of Walter Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America. More than anyone else, Paepcke was responsible for making Aspen not just another ski resort, but also a post-war outpost of art and culture. Paepcke was instrumental in creating the Aspen Institute, which still sponsors annual festivals in art, music and literature. He offered Berko a job photographing luminaries who were visiting Aspen and convinced him to move to the mountain town (as he had many other European emigres, including the late Herbert Bayer). Berko left Paepcke's employ in 1951 but remained in Aspen and launched a successful freelance career.
Camera Obscura director Gould first became aware of Berko in the 1950s, when Gould was a prominent commercial photographer. Gould soon became an amateur curator, too, and it was in this capacity that he included a photo by Berko in the 1959 Rush to the Rockies exhibit. That show commemorated the centennial of the 1859 Gold Rush and featured the work of Colorado's greatest photographers. This important presentation was mounted in the lobby of the First National Bank, because in the 1950s, no Denver galleries featured photography, and the medium was entirely banned from the Denver Art Museum.
Forty years later, Gould is presenting Berko's first solo show in Denver. For this local premiere, he has paid special attention to the first three decades of Berko's long career, no doubt a reflection of Gould's belief that "Berko was one of the pre-eminent photojournalists of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties."
The oldest photos in the show date from 1932, when the teenage Berko still lived in Frankfurt, and they demonstrate his prodigious gift. In a gelatin silver print identified only as "Frankfurt, Germany, 1932," Berko has inverted a shot of the reflections of bicycle riders in a flooded street. By turning the image upside down, Berko converts the candid piece into an abstract that at first glance seems to have been altered in the darkroom--but it wasn't.
Another gelatin silver print also labeled (confusingly) "Frankfurt, Germany, 1932" reveals a different side of Berko--that of the street photographer, a mode that predominates throughout the show. In this photo, Berko has taken an overhead view of a horse-drawn wagon crossing trolley tracks and set the diagonal created by the wagon against the opposing diagonal of the tracks. The picture's strong geometric quality results in a memorable, multi-faceted image that's both a street photograph and a modernist composition.
This incorporation of geometry appears all through the show. Another 1930s gelatin silver print identified as "London, England, 1937" is on one level a spontaneous scene of a woman adjusting her stockings while a passing man looks on. But on another level, it's a bold geometric picture, dramatically carried out in lights and darks.
An untitled cibachrome print identified as "Ramp, Chicago, USA, 1948" is one of the exhibit's few color photographs, despite the fact that Berko was an early exponent of the technique. "Ramp" is extremely abstract. From above, Berko shoots a florid, grand staircase with a wide, serpentine banister and places it in the foreground. The checkered floor below it is set at a diagonal, filling the background. The outdoor architectural features are in full sun, which overlights--and thus washes out--the pastel colors of pink, cream, gray and yellow. This use of natural light is another quality in many of Berko's photographs; one of the newest in the show is the gelatin silver print identified as "Pine Forest, Contrlight [sic], California, 1966," in which Berko depicts a grove of trees filtering the blinding rays of the setting sun.
The Berko show at Camera Obscura leaves viewers wanting to see more, especially the recent work of this eighty-something photographer.
The state's historic photography isn't the only kind ignored by the local museums; regional contemporary photography is neglected as well. Another Denver champion of Colorado photography, Carol Keller, is presenting an exciting group show that includes some of the most talked-about locals.
As suggested by its title, Intro II is the second half of a show meant to introduce the stable of artists at Keller's recently opened namesake gallery. In an innovative idea meant to streamline the process, Keller has simply replaced pieces in Intro I with different photos by the same photographers to come up with Intro II. (Don't be surprised to see this approach taken up by other galleries, and if organizers are careful to find work of roughly the same size, the wall-mounted hangers don't even need to be moved.)
With this gallery, Keller's intention is not only to provide a showcase for some notable local talent, but also to feature pieces by internationally known photographers. If some out-of-town photographers are included in Intro II, most of those in the show hail from the immediate Highland neighborhood where the gallery is located--reflecting the fact that many of the city's artists have chosen over the last couple of decades to live in northwest Denver.
Keller, who also lives in the artist-friendly neighborhood, purchased the odd one-story triangular space that houses her showroom just last January and supervised the modest rehabbing of the 1914 building, which overlooks downtown. Constructed originally as a garage, the structure has also served as a ceramics studio, complete with kilns (which have since been removed). The Colorado Photographic Arts Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, rents space from Keller and is mounting shows in two small galleries on the premises. But the majority of the building is devoted to Keller's gallery, which consists of two large rooms, open to one another, a small back gallery and a tiny office.
Intro II is crowded with photographs and other kinds of photo-based work that exemplifies a wide variety of technical approaches.
Among the several photographers interested in primitive image-making are David Sharpe and Grant Leighton. Sharpe, who has a considerable reputation locally for his vanguard views of the Western landscape, is represented by "Full Body Blow," a unique silver print in which the photographer places a desolate prairie scene floating on an indefinite gray field. Leighton, a British immigrant, contributes an untitled gelatin silver print revealing a young masked man surrounded by almost total darkness. (This photo is the only one in Intro II that also appeared in Intro I.)
Other photographers explore more high-tech methods. John Bonath, who's gaining a national following, uses computer programs to make what could be called hypothetical photographs. In the gelatin silver print "Rubbing Two Sticks," Bonath takes a portrait of a uniformed Boy Scout who's holding drumsticks and replaces the kid's skin with what looks like scabrous clay--or maybe even camouflage.
Daniel Salazar's "Cabajito," which combines the image of a rocking horse with that of Geronimo, is a photograph of a photo montage, even if it does look like a computer-generated image. Salazar achieves the seamless surface by photographing his original black-and-white montage with color film (in order to get a rich array of blacks and grays) and then printing it in the Fujichrome process.
While Salazar's photo is technically done in color, it still looks like a black-and-white. Michael Dreiza's "Dana's Dresser," another Fujichrome print, is very different: The bright colors of the crowded scene are lit and toned up to garish levels. The composition is so dense that at first we might not even notice that Dana's feet are a part of the still life.
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In another colored photograph, "Horses Near Brush," recognized master Ron Wohlauer captures a landscape; he uses hand-tinting to achieve the painterly quality of this untypical piece.
Keller opened her first gallery, the River Gallery, in 1981, just a block from her current location. Beginning in 1982, she spent sixteen years as the director of the distinguished Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus. These years in the art world have allowed Keller to develop relationships with many of the region's best photographers, something that has obviously stood her in good stead now that she has her own venue again.
Ferenc Berko: Sixty Years of Photography, through December 31, at the Camera Obscura Gallery, 1309 Bannock Street, 303-623-4059.
Intro: Part II, through January 9, at the Carol Keller Gallery, 1513 Boulder Street, #8, 303-455-8999.