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Getting the Picture

"The Sentinel -- Bristlecone Pine, Mt. Goliath, Colorado," archival silver print.

There are only a few days left to catch Hal D. Gould: Visual Legacy at the Camera Obscura Gallery. The important show highlights the long career of a significant figure in the world of local fine-art photography, and believe it or not, after fifty years of photography, this is Gould's first solo.

With his signature cowboy boots and bolo tie, it's no surprise to find that Gould is a lifelong Westerner.

Born near Clark, Wyoming, in 1920, Gould was, as he says, "raised up in New Mexico." His father ran a combination guest and working ranch in the Jemez Mountains in an area that today is part of the San Pedro Park Wilderness area. But with no guests during World War II, "my dad was forced to sell the place," Gould recalls. "He got $12,000 for 160 acres of high mountain valley -- it would be worth $2 million today."

Gould first developed an interest in photography in the 1930s, while he was in junior high school, and went on to become the photographer for his high school yearbook. "I got my first camera in 1932 by selling Liberty [a magazine]," he says. "It was a Kodak fifty-year-anniversary box camera."

Despite this early interest, Gould didn't immediately realize he had a future in photography. He studied dentistry at Baylor University in Dallas but was drafted before he could finish, and never went back. After leaving the Army in 1946, Gould enrolled in the Ray-Vogue School of Art in Chicago, then later attended the Winona School of Professional Photography and the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago in the 1940s was a center for fine-art photography, and Gould studied with several important figures, including Art Siegel and Harry Callahan, both of whom taught at the Institute of Design.

Since photography is so firmly fixed among the fine arts today, it may be hard to imagine that at that time, most of the art world regarded the medium with contempt. Many didn't consider photography to be a kind of art at all, since the method involves mechanical, and not hand-made, reproductions. "When I was a student, there wasn't a single art school or university in the country that offered a degree in photography," Gould recalls with resentment.

But if most sneered at photos, Gould loved them, so much so that in addition to being a working photographer, he began a study of the history of photography and has often lectured on the subject, beginning at a time when few others were interested.

In 1950 Gould returned to the West, taking a job as a commercial photographer in Casper, Wyoming. The oldest -- and some of the finest -- photos in the show at Camera Obscura date from this period. In 1955 he moved to Denver, where he has lived ever since.

The post-war period was a boom time in Denver, and success was all but guaranteed when Gould opened his own studio, the House of Photography, in Cherry Creek North. He ran the studio until 1980, and although he focused on commercial photography, he also took fine-art shots.

Since he was still interested in the history of photography, Gould began to moonlight as a curator as well, and beginning in 1963, he presented shows in the Upper Level Gallery. As its name suggests, the nonprofit space was upstairs from the offices of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, which itself was founded in 1963. Originally, CPAC, which now flourishes in digs in the Highland neighborhood, was housed a few doors south of the Camera Obscura, at the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street.

"I was the original executive secretary of CPAC and the director of exhibits at the Upper Level Gallery for eighteen years," Gould says. "My salary was one dollar a year -- but I never did cash the checks."

According to Gould and others, CPAC and the Upper Level Gallery were founded because the Denver Art Museum wouldn't exhibit photography. "Otto Bach [the DAM's then-director] bragged that there would be no photos exhibited at the museum as long as he was there," Gould says. And Bach was there a long time, from the 1930s to the 1970s. But Bach wasn't alone. In the early 1960s, there were only a few venues in the entire country for fine-art photography; the Upper Level Gallery was one of them.

"We showed all the great artists in the history of photography," says Gould, who organized seven exhibits a year there. "Our first show was Mathew Brady." He then clicks off a list of other big-name talents presented at the Upper Level Gallery, including Paul Strand, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Because of the DAM's intransigence, each of these shows marked a Denver first.

In 1980 Gould left the Upper Level Gallery, closed his commercial studio and opened Camera Obscura, the city's first private gallery devoted exclusively to fine-art photography, where he continued to present big names.

All along, Gould has been making his own photographs, though he has exhibited them only in group shows or in the nooks and crannies of his filled-to-the-rafters two-story gallery.

Visual Legacy is installed in the main exhibition space, in the stairway and in the upstairs corridor. It was organized by Loretta Young-Gautier and Mollie Uhl Eaton -- another first, since every other exhibit at Camera Obscura was organized by Gould. Young-Gautier, the assistant director, has increasingly played a role in running the gallery.

Western scenes predominate. "I have an affinity for the West; I have since I was a kid," says Gould. "A lot of these photos are from the lost West...the branding scenes, the roundups -- all lost."

Prominently displayed over the fireplace in the front room (Camera Obscura used to be a house) is "Horse Corral -- Valley Ranch, Wyoming," a 1954 archival silver print. It's a fabulous photograph. The foreground is filled with horses; cowboys at their labors, only one of whom is mounted, are glimpsed in among them. Deep shadows indicate that it's early in the morning. "It's the kind of thing that can't be seen today," says Gould. "Now there's a swimming pool and tennis court where that corral used to be."

Across from "Horse Corral" is 1954's "Lambfries -- Wyoming," a unique archival silver print. Taken just after sundown, this photo shows a row of irons laid in a large fire, with a large spatter-ware coffeepot nearby. Above and to the right are two cowboys, partly obscured by the darkness, sitting by a smaller fire. The light of the fire, and Gould's darkroom retouching, illuminate their white cowboy hats. Across the back, in a strong yet subtle horizontal stripe, is a herd of cattle, which are mostly lost in the dusk.

The photographs of working men, a favorite subject of Gould's, are among the most impressive images in the show. Around the corner from "Lambfries" and partway up the staircase is another of these, this one about the oil industry. "Rough-necking, Wyoming," is a vintage silver print done in 1952. It's a dramatic setting created by the sunlight hitting a web of cable riggings and a huge drill bit that is being lowered and guided into place by burly laborers wearing hard hats. The photo reveals Gould's debt to his predecessors and especially recalls the work of the great Lewis Hine.

Many of the photos make these kind of historic references, and in a number of images taken in northern New Mexico, Gould pays homage to the work of Ansel Adams.

Just to the right of "Horse Corral" is the monumental "St. Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos," a vintage-toned silver print from 1958. The old wood-and-adobe church is seen in full sunlight, the front bleached bright white -- at least in comparison to the rosy sepia of the sky and the shadows.

There are quite a few of these Southwestern scenes in the main exhibition space. "White House -- Hlaukwima," an archival silver print from 1954, is a classic shot of a pueblo. "Santario, Chimayo," a vintage silver print from 1958, is a view of the miraculous church from between the trunks and boughs of two ancient cottonwood trees. It is no longer possible to take in this picturesque view, since the old trees died more than twenty years ago.

Trees are also the subject of a series of photos taken mostly during the last decade. Hiking into the forests around Mt. Goliath, Gould has taken many portraits of the gnarled bristlecone pines found on the ramparts there; some of these twisted trees are over 2,500 years old.

A signature image from this series is "The Sentinel -- Bristlecone Pine, Mt. Goliath, Colorado," a 1991 archival silver print. This particular tree is fairly famous and has been depicted by other photographers as well as painters and printmakers. The tree is reminiscent of a bonsai specimen; curls of crooked wood rise vertically, but the living parts of the tree, its needles, grow horizontally over the void of a cliff. "I went back to the tree over and over and took a number of shots at different times of the day," says Gould. In the final photo, clouds float behind the tree, making it stand out against the sky.

In another from the same series, "Ming Dog Tree -- Bristlecone Pine," an archival silver print from 1988, Gould takes a close-up of a tree trunk, the elaborate contours of which suggest to him a Chinese Foo dog. "Since I took the photos year after year, I gave them nicknames to keep them straight," Gould says.

Some of the photos in Visual Legacy are even more recent than the bristlecone series, notably shots from Gould's 1998 trip to Spain. A good example is "Spanish Hill Town -- Sos del Rey Catolico," an archival silver print of a village in the blazing sun. These photos were very nearly Gould's last; he almost died on that trip after suffering food poisoning that led to the potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome.

In terms of subject matter, Gould's selections are widely varied and include portraits, still lifes, landscapes and even abstracts. But the Western stuff shines through the rest.

Gould's work is unified stylistically, however. His approach is to include a wide range of tones in a single photo, the brightest lights against the darkest blacks.

Gould has been a tireless champion of the photographic arts, a lecturer on the history of photography and an accomplished commercial and fine-art photographer. And when he's described as a living Denver legend, as he has been -- it's hardly an exaggeration.


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