More by happenstance than by design, three of Colorado's most important cultural institutions -- The Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum -- are all lined up, one after another, along the south side of the Civic Center.
It wasn't always so. The DAM got to its current location first, moving in the early 1950s from Chappell House, a Capitol Hill mansion. A few years later the DPL came from the other side of the park, leaving the Carnegie Library (a city building now named for former mayor Bill McNichols). And finally, in the 1970s, the CHM relocated from its handsome neo-classical building opposite the south door of the Capitol Building.
In the decades since, the CHM has assumed the lowest profile of the three. That's partly the fault of the close-to-the-ground and subtly hued building itself, a wedge-shaped design from 1977 in which much of the floor space is invisible from outside, since it is below the plaza that links the CHM to the Colorado Supreme Court. (The CHM and the Supreme Court building are part of the same complex, originally called the Judicial Heritage Center, which was the work of Denver architects RNL.) The CHM's anonymity problem is made all the worse by its emphatic neighbors, the DAM and the DPL, both of which are in their distinctive, hard-to-miss, high-style structures.
"Our building is really difficult to see," says Peg Ekstrand, the CHM's longtime public-relations director. "The trees along 13th Avenue block the view of the entrance, and you couldn't see the sign." In response to this problem, the CHM commissioned a mammoth photo-mural to help identify the building; "Colorful Colorado Montage" was erected last month. Funds for the project -- around $100,000 -- were raised from private donors.
The piece is the work of Denver graphic artist Thomas Brunet. Using computer technology at the photo-imaging shop at Cies-Sexton, Brunet blended turn-of-the-century images from the CHM's extensive collection of photos and combined them into a single horizontal composition. Portraits of cowboys, Indians and Baby Doe Tabor are set against backdrops including the Garden of the Gods and the Brown Palace Hotel. Most of the original photos are black-and-white, so Brunet colorized his versions, toning up the aptly named montage's wide range of colors and unifying the palette by using vivid blue skies across the top.
A staggering 145 feet long, "Colorful Colorado Montage" runs above the first floor of the CHM and is therefore easily seen from westbound 13th Avenue and northbound Lincoln Street. And it definitely achieves the CHM's goal of raising the museum's presence -- it's eye-catching, to say the least. But is it a work of art? Put me down as considering it signage and not a genuine mural.
The new sign is just the first change at the CHM. The museum has hired the Denver architectural firm of Bennett Wagner & Grody to design new entrances, which will be marked by yellow canopies mounted just below "Colorful Colorado Montage," and to reconfigure the lobby to include an expanded gift shop and a new staircase. Also planned is a room for schoolkids to gather with facilities to stow their books and lunches. (The CHM currently has no such area, which is more than a little troublesome, since the museum attracts some half a million students a year.) The renovation will not begin until after the holidays, but the museum will remain open during construction. That's one reason the entrance to the main first-floor galleries has been made smaller by a corridor constructed to act as a sound baffle, directing noises back at the work site and away from the galleries.
But the black-painted hallway with its black carpeting also has a figurative function: Its color and its stepped walls are meant to suggest a giant camera bellows. This entrance device symbolizes the subject of the CHM's most important exhibit this year, Then and Now, 1870-2000: The Jackson/Fielder Photos, which opened this past weekend. The show pairs images by William Henry Jackson, the state's premier landscape photographer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with brand-new re-creations by John Fielder, Jackson's modern-day corollary.
In the lobby opposite the entrance is a nineteenth-century box camera facing the bellows-cum-foyer. It is not Jackson's actual camera, since the whereabouts of that artifact are unknown, but it is similar to the camera he used. Facing viewers as they enter the galleries are a pair of inverted Jackson images in the form of sepia-toned enlargements. The room is dimly lit, meant to accustom visitor's eyes to the low-light levels in the rest of the galleries. "It's exactly the way the scene would look through the box camera," says David Newell, the CHM's director of design and production. Referring to the darkness and the upside-down scenery, Newell has nicknamed this space "the Zen room," but by making it a giant version of an old camera's insides, there's a little Ziegfield in Newell's style as well.
The show marks the first exhibit that Newell, who got the job in 1998, has overseen from start to finish, and it establishes him as a gifted designer. Newell chose the three shades of blue used on the walls, he says, "because the sky was the only consistent feature of the photographs and because it's a contemplative color." He also chose the picture-frame moldings that are used on all of the photos, a simple black form that is somehow traditional and contemporary at the same time, and he selected a creamy off-white for all the mats. Everything in Then and Now was newly framed for the show, because all of the photographs -- even Jackson's -- were newly printed. There are actual Jackson albumen prints in display cases, but all of the Jackson images that are paired with the Fielder photos have been specially created for this exhibit using original glass plates to print new photographs.
The concept for the show came from Fielder. "The genesis of the idea came to me in 1995 when I did a book on Rocky Mountain National Park," he recalls. "In that book, I included not only my own color photographs, but also black-and-white photos from the turn of the century by Enos Mills, the father of Rocky Mountain National Park. When I went on book signings, many people asked me if I had stood where Mills had. It seemed strange to me: Why would anybody want to copy someone else? I like wandering vicariously and making my own images."
But the seed was planted. In 1997 Fielder began to conceive of a millennium project with the idea of comparing how it is today versus how it was in the nineteenth century. The choice of pairing his work with Jackson's was an obvious one for Fielder, because the work of the early photographer is readily available right in town. Jackson came out to the region with the survey parties of the 1870s; he operated a photo studio in Denver in the 1880s and '90s before leaving for Detroit shortly before 1900, though he often returned to the region. The Colorado Historical Society, the state agency that oversees the CHM, has in its extensive archives more than 10,000 Jackson negatives and 5,000 prints.
A year and a half ago, Fielder approached Eric Paddock, the CHS's curator of photography and film, with the idea for a show and an accompanying book putting original Jackson images together with Fielder's re-creations. Paddock loved the idea. "Both are the best-known landscape photographers of their respective generations," Paddock notes. "Both are internationally famous for their emblematic images of Colorado's most powerful scenic icons, the enduring focal points of the myths and legends about the state held by people worldwide."
Fielder and Paddock combed the Jackson archive, culling 300 images, and Fielder made the final selections himself. The book, also called Then and Now, 1870-2000: The Jackson/Fielder Photos, includes the complete set of 300 pairs. The Then and Now exhibit, organized by Paddock, features sixty pairs he selected from Fielder's choices and some supplemental images not found in the book. Paddock has also included relevant artifacts related to photography, such as antique and modern cameras, as well as things directly related to either Jackson or Fielder. Most interesting is the Jackson sketchbook from the 1860s, which shows that before he began to photograph the scenery, he drew it. This display is just beyond the "Zen/Ziegfield" room. After that, the exhibit gets under way with a room devoted to the Colorado scenery.
In this section are many fine things. Of particular interest are the two photos of Roxborough Park, Jackson's "Red Sandstone near Platte Cañon" a black-and-white from 1870, and Fielder's "Arrowhead Golf Course, 15th Fairway," in color, from 1998. As in many of the photo pairs, the changes revealed are fairly subtle since the gorgeous rock formation in the background of both is unchanged. Also, the golf course, though ecologically unsound, is less intrusive than other kinds of modern development -- like the housing tracts that show up elsewhere in Then and Now. A charming aspect of the Jackson photo is the mule-drawn wagon, which is stopped along the dirt road in the middle of the picture. "Jackson converted a Civil War ambulance into a mobile photo lab, which was a necessity then," says Paddock. "The glass-plate negatives used at the time required chemical processing in the field, something that kept amateurs out of landscape photography until the twentieth century." Interestingly, there is also a vehicle in the middle of the Fielder photo -- but in this case, it's a golf cart. Paddock points out that the dirt road already visible in the Jackson photo is still there in Fielder's.
These photos of Roxborough Park are similar to a pair that take up the subject of the summit of Pikes Peak. In Jackson's "Pikes Peak Carridge Road" done after 1891, an open-sided carriage pulled by a team of mules is descending along the road. Fielder's 1998 shot is little different, except that an SUV, a convertible and a motorcycle are on the road. Otherwise, even the placement of the boulders in the foreground is the same.
Other photos reveal that a century or so has mattered little, but as we proceed to sections devoted to water and the built environment, we see the ravages wrought by development and industry. "It would be disingenuous of me to say that I did not expect there to have been great changes, but the total changes as seen in the photographs are shocking," says Fielder, a committed environmentalist. "We're losing 100,000 acres a year to development," he adds with a sigh, pointing out that though more open space is set aside every year, it's insignificant compared to what's being lost.
Take a look at "Great Morainal Valley," a black-and-white Jackson photo from 1873, done at the time he was a survey photographer. The pristine Chaffee County valley is a tree-dotted glen with the meandering La Plata River forming an elegant and informal diagonal from the bottom left to the center of the photo. The scene is unrecognizable in "Clear Creek Reservoir," Fielding's 1998 color photo that takes in the same view. Now water fills much of the valley, and the only thing meandering is the tangle of service roads along the shoreline.
In addition to all of the scenic photos are those of the state's cities and towns. One of the most striking pairs is "Denver Brown Palace Hotel," Jackson's black-and-white from 1911, and "(from the Amoco Building)," Fielder's same view from 1998, also in black and white. In the Jackson, the stately hotel towers over its neighbors; in the Fielder, its neighbors tower over it.
The last parts of the show are the least satisfying. First is a series of three-dimensional photographic works (they were previewed at the Cherry Creek Mall), in which a Jackson and a Fielder have each been cut into strips and laid down on either side of pyramidal moldings mounted in vertical rows -- Jackson's image is visible when the piece is viewed from one side, Fielding's from the other. It's a little gimmicky, if you ask me.
And what about all of the interactive features meant to pique the interest of kids? If kids are scooping up film canisters and putting them onto scales -- the point being to demonstrate the relative weight of glass negatives versus that of modern film -- aren't they, ipso facto, not looking at the photos? Such interactive "educational" devices, which are cropping up everywhere -- not just at the CHM -- seem misguided. They're distractions intended to make exhibits more palatable to the disinterested, and though they may be successful at that, they fail the more thoughtful audience that is put off by the insulting, lowest-common-denominator approach that characterizes the education component of most large shows these days.
Ignore the interactives -- I know I do -- and focus instead on this beautiful, multi-faceted show. And catch it before construction on the CHM begins in January.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.