It's quite unusual for Denver's gallery-goers to be treated to more than one good photography show at a time. But this spring, interesting shows are popping up the way dandelions are sprouting on lawns. At Camera Obscura--where good things are always developing--the exhibition Willy Ronis provides a retrospective look at the work of an important French photographer. The stunning group show Cuba: Siempre Viva at the Museo de las Americas features contemporary work direct from Havana. Closer to home, the Mackey Gallery showcases provocative work by several locals in Photo '97. Taken together, the three shows survey a wide swath: from classic black-and-white work to mixed-media pieces in which photography is but one of the elements.
Camera Obscura director Hal Gould describes Willy Ronis as "the most important living French photographer." Yet according to Gould, Ronis is almost entirely unknown in this country. In an effort to correct that perceived injustice, Gould, a longtime fan of Ronis's work, organized what is Ronis's first solo show in the United States.
Ronis was instrumental in the development of the "Nouvelle Vision," a movement that served as the French corollary to Depression-era American documentary photography such as that created for the Farm Service Administration. Born in Paris in 1910 to a Jewish immigrant couple from Russia, Ronis grew up in the shadow of his father, an accomplished photographer in his own right who must have provided inspiration early on. The younger Ronis first attempted a career as a composer, but by the 1930s, he was well on his way to becoming a pioneer of French modern photography.
Finding inspiration in the everyday life of Paris, especially among the lower classes, Ronis immortalized simple people without ever looking down his lens at them. This was the work that made him a key figure in the Nouvelle Vision. However, his artistic development was soon interrupted by a wolf at the gate. Beginning in 1940, the Nazis occupied most of the northern part of France, including Paris, while the southern part of the country was run by the Nazi-puppet Vichy government of Marshal Henri Petain. Ronis, a Jew living in Paris, found himself on the decidedly wrong side of this arrangement.
In 1941, with fifteen friends, he attempted to break out of the German-occupied zone. A Nazi patrol sabotaged the plan. "I was nearly caught," Ronis recalls in a biography provided by the gallery. "I ran into the woods...counting eight shots as I zig-zagged. After a while I summoned up the courage to go back and see what had happened. All my friends had been caught."
After escaping to the south, Ronis joined the "Bande a Prevert (the Prevert Gang)," a group of surrealist artists who gathered around poet Jacque Prevert. The gang was active during the war under the Vichy regime and kept a low profile to avoid arrests by the Nazis, who regarded modern art as a subversive activity.
When the war ended, Ronis resumed his photography career. In 1945 he received an important official commission, to document the return of 1.5 million French prisoners of war from Germany. These photographs were widely disseminated in the world press and led Life magazine to hire Ronis as a photographer. The relationship with Life was not a happy one for the politically liberal Ronis, though, because right-wing captions were often appended to his photographs. The last straw for Ronis, according to Gould, came when a "Red menace" caption was placed under a photograph of striking autoworkers. Ronis supported the strikers, and in his own expression of solidarity, quit his job with the magazine.
In the years since, Ronis has worked for Vogue and Jardin des Modes. In the 1960s he began to teach photography at various French universities and continued for two decades until retiring in the 1980s. At that time, he returned to Paris just in time for his wholesale rediscovery by French art collectors and dealers. Gould says that today the 87-year-old Ronis spends most of his time printing from his negatives in an attempt to satisfy newfound admirers, but he works at a painstakingly slow pace and can hardly keep up with demand.
The show at Camera Obscura illustrates this shortage of material. "Le Nu Provençal, Gordes, 1949," a vintage silver print, depicts a nude woman washing in a basin in a spare and primitive room. "It is Ronis's most famous image," Gould says, "but he didn't have any available." Gould's solution was to show a print from his own private collection; unlike the rest of the photographs in the show, "Le Nu Provencal" is not for sale.
"Le Nu Provencal" is classic Ronis, using natural light with dramatic and almost theatrical effects. Another early photo that expresses Ronis's great gift for working with glare and shadow is "Rue Rambutem, Frites, 1949," another archival silver print. In this print, two women work behind the counter of a tabac preparing French fries. One has spied Ronis and smiles directly at the lens. Behind the woman, sun filters through dirty glass windows, set off by back-lit steam emanating from the cooking potatoes. Food is also central to another of Ronis's great images of post-war France: the little boy caught running down the street with a baguette under his arm in "Paris, 1952."
Today Ronis no longer takes pictures, but he remained at the top of his form until he stopped. That's evident in "Parapente sur Valmorel, 1992," an archival silver print that looks like an aerial photo of an Alpine village but is actually a shot taken from the top of a very steep ski run. In the foreground are the tips of the then-82-year-old Ronis's skis.
Ronis was part of an international movement that sought to champion gritty reality in black-and-white photography. And when one thinks of contemporary Cuban photography, that same style comes to mind. That's why Museo assistant director Tariana Navas-Nieves placed the work of Max Orlando Banos at the start of Cuba: Siempre Viva. "People expect street photography from Cuba, so I placed Banos first, because his work is the most traditional," says Navas-Nieves. "As the show proceeds, the work gets more cutting-edge."
But the photos aren't the only thing edgy about this show. Since Cuba is a country still under U.S. embargo, the Museo took a risk by even presenting it. Navas-Nieves says she was contacted by the State Department and quizzed about the content of the exhibit. There couldn't have been too much to talk about; the material here is hardly controversial and could very well have been shot in some parts of the United States.
The group show highlights ten young photographers who have worked or are working in Havana, eight of them native Cubans and two of them vacationing Americans. One of the Yanks is Dennie Eagleson, a professor at Ohio's Antioch College who organized the show.
Banos, whose work launches the display, creates lovely genre scenes such as "Mujer con Cigarro (Woman With Cigar)," which shows an Afro-Cuban woman, a cigar clenched in her teeth, drawing water for cooking from an outdoor spout. Felix Antequera also looks to the street for inspiration. In an untitled black-and-white photograph, Antequera catches a poignant scene of a disabled girl with crutches who is weighted down with a heavy backpack. The girl walks by a once-grand building that has collapsed and been left in ruins. Maybe this photo's got a political message beneath the surface, but Antequera seems to be tapping into a universal sentiment: compassion. Another endearing portrait, also an untitled black-and-white, shows an old man with his hand on his hip standing before a doorway in deep shadows.
The most notable works in this show, though, aren't indigenous street scenes but the blurry, black-and-white shots of sea, sky and crumbling resorts from Manuel Pina's "Aguas Baldias (Uninhabited Waters)" series. Pina appears to be part and parcel of the current international photography scene, where experimentation is all the rage. And photographers are widely embracing experimentation of every sort, as Photo '97, at the Mackey Gallery, proves. For this show, gallery director Mary Mackey has selected the work of five young Denver photographers. Mackey today is known for her abstract paintings and prints, but she was trained as a photographer, and this annual photo show at her namesake gallery allows her to keep that interest focused.
Mackey takes an anything-goes approach that stands in contrast to the traditionalism at Camera Obscura and the Museo. Some of the artists in Photo '97 aren't even doing photography per se, but rather creating work that falls more readily into the mixed-media camp. Andrew Beckham, for example, combines constructions, typographic maps, Polaroid transfers, oil paint and etchings in his "Tools Series." Patricia Barry Levy places her photo enlargements in metal installations, while Kit Hedman makes triptychs that place pairs of related photos on either side of hand-written panels.
But it's the traditional stuff that works best here, such as the photographs of Gene Jacob, which look like a modern-day tribute to Ronis's Parisian street scenes. In the toned print "John Stressing Joel," the hard reality of street life for homeless youth is conveyed as two bullies loom over a solitary boy. And the star of Photo '97 is Christopher James, who's represented by scores of untitled black-and-white contact prints of Denver at night. Several are unforgettable, including the glimpse of downtown seen through the rubble of the now-demolished Lincoln Park housing project and a shot of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza during its demolition. James is a master of night photography, and these recent photos are some of his finest to date.
Willy Ronis, Cuba: Siempre Viva and Photo '97 provide locals a glimpse of the wide array of options being taken up by photographers both around the world and here at home. They're the perfect setup for summer--which, after all, is shutterbug season for just about everyone.
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Willy Ronis, through June 8 at the Camera Obscura Gallery, 1309 Bannock Street, 623-4059.
Cuba: Siempre Viva, through May 31 at the Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 571-4401.
Photo '97, through June 14 at the Mackey Gallery, 2900 West 25th Avenue, 455-1157.