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"Longmont," by Robert Adams, gelatin silver print.

Photography is a complicated topic from the perspective of the fine arts. There are so many different types of photography -- scientific, documentary, fashion, advertising, experimental -- all of which may or may not qualify as fine art. Not only that, but the very nature of the medium is difficult to define, presenting viewers and scholars with more questions than answers. For instance, are films a kind of photography? Are videos? DVDs? Are paintings and prints made with photographic methods photography, too? And most important, how do all of these photo-based art forms relate back to good old-fashioned "straight" photography?

In Retrospectacle, curator Dianne Vanderlip, founder and head of the modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum, addresses most of these issues head on. But she sidesteps the question of "straight" photography's place, treating the medium as part of, yet distinct from, the rest of the art world (but more about that later).

Because all photographs are mechanically produced -- as opposed to being handmade, like paintings -- even the oldest ones fall within the boundaries of the modern movement. That puts all photographic work at the DAM under the domain of the modern and contemporary department. And that's why Vanderlip has made photos a key component of her 25th-anniversary celebration, which showcases the impressive collection of modern and contemporary art that she has pulled together during her years at the museum.

When Vanderlip was hired, in 1978, the museum had only a handful of photos in its permanent collection, because DAM director Otto Bach, who ran the place with an iron fist between 1944 and 1974, did not consider photography a fine art. Lewis Story, the DAM's fondly remembered assistant director, immediately took advantage of Bach's departure, purchasing a suite of Ansel Adams images -- the DAM's first photographic acquisition since World War II. By the time Vanderlip joined the staff, the situation had changed radically, allowing her first acquisition to be a photo-based piece by conceptual artist John Baldessari. Since then, the collection has grown relentlessly and now includes some 4,500 photographic images.

The Baldessari is on display in the main section of Retrospectacle (reviewed November 21, 2002), in the Stanton Galleries on the ground floor, which is where the paintings, sculptures, installations and most of the photo-based pieces are being presented. But Retrospectacle also includes a separate show in the Merage Gallery on the seventh floor, in which Vanderlip showcases the "straight" photographs from the collection. (See, I told you she sidestepped that particular curatorial problem.)

It's a real pity that the Merage is so far from the Stanton -- literally, the rest of the museum lies between the two spaces -- because although huge crowds are mobbing the main part of Retrospectacle, relatively few are finding their way to the photo section upstairs.

In the Merage, Vanderlip throws us a curve right off the bat, immediately questioning the nature of photography. At the start of the show is a monitor playing Bruce Nauman's Setting a Good Corner, an hour-long digital video from 1999 showing Nauman building a fence on his New Mexico ranch.

I like Vanderlip's connection of traditional photography with the latest photographic technology, but there's a real problem with the Nauman: the incessant buzz of his chain saw on the sound track. The horrible noise fills the Merage and intrudes on the entire show. I wish the DAM had put in earphones for those who are interested and spared the rest of us the annoying din -- or just turned the darn thing off completely. I said as much to the museum's Blake Milteer, with whom I walked through the photo show last week. Milteer acknowledged my point, saying, "The sound of videos and DVDs is something we need to deal with. We're trying different things."

Officially, Milteer is a special-projects assistant, but unofficially, he's the modern and contemporary department's photo specialist. The unofficial gig fell into his lap just a few months ago, when John Pultz resigned as photo curator. Pultz was in on the very early stages, but after his departure, Milteer took the reins and selected pieces for Retrospectacle's photo section with Vanderlip.

Despite the noise, the Nauman exemplifies one of the main themes of the show: photography in the West. "The Nauman is one of many things in the collection by contemporary artists from the region, and the department has collected photos by Western photographers all along," Milteer explains. "Also, with the acquisition of the Wolf Collection ten years ago, the museum acquired a thousand images of the West."

Milteer is referring to the early Western photos assembled by Daniel Wolf, which were purchased in 1988 for what was then the outrageous sum of $1.5 million. The photos Wolf collected are remarkable both for their high quality and for their remarkable state of conservation. This bold move was made by DAM director Lewis Sharp; though controversial at the time, today it is regarded as visionary, and the collection's market value has soared.

 

"It makes sense that we would focus on the West, because we're in the West," says Milteer. "But it wasn't the intention of the department; it just sort of happened. Now we're famous for it, and all the time, museums from around the world are calling us and requesting loans of our Western photos."

Hanging adjacent to the video monitor playing the Nauman on a continuous loop are two very old photos from the Wolf Collection, one by Colorado's own William Henry Jackson, the other by Timothy O'Sullivan. Both are from the nineteenth century and typical of that age. The Jackson, an 1880 albumen print titled "Grand Canon of the Colorado," captures a group of explorers standing on the rim of the canyon. The range of light Jackson captures in the photo is notable, from the deep shadows and murky details of the foreground to the vaporous and nearly invisible overlit elements in the background.

The even more beautiful O'Sullivan, "Ancient Ruins in the Canon de Chelle," an albumen print, is crisply focused and evenly and well lit. The elegant composition has an abstract quality that lends it an almost contemporary look, despite having been taken in 1873.

As indicated by the juxtaposition of the twentieth-century Nauman and the nineteenth-century Jackson and O'Sullivan, the show is not chronologically arranged. Instead, clusters of pictures with some affinity are brought together. The subject of the Western landscape connects the Nauman, Jackson and O'Sullivan, along with Richard Misrach's huge photomural, "Downed Safety Cone, Bonneville Salt Flats," which is hung on the opposite side. The 1992 color coupler print displays a wide view of the Salt Flats surrounding a bright-orange cone in the center.

This grouping of old images of Western scenes with new ones continues throughout the show. Just around the corner from the Misrach is a breathtaking 1870s albumen print of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins -- another Wolf piece -- paired with a recently purchased 2001 gelatin silver print of a nighttime view of the town of Victor by Denver photographer Christopher James. James is one of many Colorado photographers shown here; among the others are Kevin O'Connell, James Balog and the late Wes Kennedy.

One photographer, Robert Adams, now lives in Oregon, but he trained and did his most important work during the decades that he lived in our state. In the early '90s, Adams won the "genius prize" from the MacArthur Foundation with works like "Longmont," a gelatin silver print from 1985. In this photo, Adams focused his lens on a lighted goalpost at a high school football field. Adams was a genius in the way he took the traditional idealized views of the Western landscape and turned them inside out. Instead of recording the mountains, he looked at the mundane sights of suburbia built up against them.

While Western photography is the predominant theme of the Merage show, there is more to see: nineteenth-century photos from Europe, abstract and experimental photos from around the world (some even taken here), and examples by the masters of photography.

It's a treasure chest of riches, there's no denying it -- but such a pluralistic approach prevents the show from jelling. Though I understand Vanderlip's and Milteer's motivation to include as many of the finest things as possible I think it would have made better sense to limit the show to a single idea. And obviously, that would be the Western theme.

I also think the exhibit should have been installed in chronological order. True, the things that were hung together make various and invariably nice statements about the nature of the photographic method at two widely disparate times -- the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- but I think it would have made considerably more sense to have started the show with the oldest pieces and ended it with the newest.

For instance, while contrasting the Nauman with the Jackson and O'Sullivan creates a neat effect, wouldn't putting Jackson, O'Sullivan and Watkins in a line have been even neater? Had Vanderlip and Milteer done it that way, the developments that led from the older approaches to those done more than a century later would have been better explored and better understood by viewers.

But a big hole in the middle of the collection is the reason that Vanderlip and Milteer arranged things in a subjective, rather than objective, order. The DAM has fine representatives of early photography because of the Wolf images and lots of contemporary photos as a result of Vanderlip's efforts, but it's material from the decades in between -- the early to mid-twentieth century -- that is almost entirely missing. The DAM is always looking to collect work from this time period, but because it coincides with the rise of modernism -- a sought-after category for collectors -- significant examples are hard to find and tend to cost a fortune.

 

Even knowing what I do about the museum's holdings, I think Vanderlip and Milteer could have constructed a show with a credible chronological history of photography, especially if selections had been limited to Western items. That would have lent the show intellectual content that it presently does not have.

Retrospectacle runs through August, but the current photo section in the Merage Gallery closes in February; a second exhibit examining contemporary photography will replace it in March.

After viewing the Merage show, I made a point to go back to the main section to see its photos and photo-based works and make the inevitable comparisons. Since I know many of you missed the separate photo section and have seen only the fare in the Stanton, I suggest that when you go back (as you know you really should), you do precisely the same thing.


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