The black-and-white photos of Don Donaghy are often out of focus, overexposed and underlighted, so it's no surprise to learn that Donaghy has never used a light meter. But as Photographs From the Street, a retrospective of Donaghy's 1960s work now at the Grant Gallery, makes clear, a disregard for technical mastery can sometimes actually enhance artistic accomplishment.
Donaghy was schooled on the hard streets of New York and Philadelphia before moving to Boulder at the height of the hippie movement. And he used absolutely no hocus-focus in the darkroom. His photos are never cropped. The printing, done by Donaghy himself, is little more than perfunctory. But if he reduced technique to its bare minimum, not so the visual experience. The photos on view here include a score of unforgettable works of art.
Gallery director John Grant ably curated this show by poring over Donaghy's many old contact sheets, selecting dozens of shots, including many that have never been printed before. The result is a first-ever opportunity to see Donaghy in depth--with the benefit of dazzling newly printed gelatin silver prints--and to understand what makes these thirty-year-old photos so relevant and so worth remembering.
Throughout the 1960s Donaghy's images ranged from character studies and still lifes to cityscapes and abstractions. According to Donaghy, he made no distinction between the different styles: "Whether it was an abstract or a straightforward shot," he says, "there was no difference for me."
Nonetheless, in the process of making his selections, Grant uncovered certain discrete leitmotifs, among them decline and decay. Donaghy's subjects are often old or poor. The environment in which they live is filled with litter, peeling paint and broken glass. Glass also provides another principal theme for Donaghy: His subjects are often seen through cracked and dirty windows.
Donaghy turned to photography after studying commercial art at the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art School. The shift was the product of both his love for the great twentieth-century practitioners of the craft and his intense desire to avoid a future in advertising.
Donaghy began by making a study of the very disparate work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lang and, even before he met and worked closely with him, Robert Frank. "There was such a difference between them all," he says. "They became my teachers. I went through the books and then I went out to shoot."
The influence of Frank's candid street photography was the most profoundly felt, and it's the easiest to see. "There was a school of thought in Philly in those days that was influenced by Frank," explains Donaghy, who quit school, got a Leica and took a job delivering flowers that allowed him to crisscross Philadelphia on a daily basis. When something piqued his interest, says Donaghy, "I'd pull over my van, I'd go back, click, one shot, nod and go on." (Today, Donaghy adds, "street photography is a thing of the past because it's so much more dangerous out there now than it was then. In those days, they'd just take your camera--now they'd beat you up, too.")
The photos from this earliest period already lay out Donaghy's broad if inarticulate aims. A sense of moral outrage at poverty is well-illustrated in "Untitled (Philadelphia, 1962)," though Donaghy makes the distinction between his sensitivity to the subject and the activism of others. The photo depicts a black man who has taken refuge in a derelict storefront. Donaghy shoots the sleeping transient through the dirty display window; ripped and tattered vinyl curtains that imitate lace only partly obscure the scene.
A closely related photo from the same period that reveals both Donaghy's social conscience and his unerring eye for formal composition is "Untitled (Philadelphia, 1961)," in which an elderly black man plays the trumpet behind the glass door of a shabby music store.
By subtly changing his subject, Donaghy was able to create photos with remarkably different effects. In "Untitled (Philadelphia, 1962)," the subject is again a run-down shop. But this time the topic is purely aesthetic as Donaghy records a series of diagonals created by the play of light on the dirty glass window and the shadow of the empty store behind it.
Even more radical in its aims is another stunning photo, also called "Untitled (Philadelphia, 1962)." In it, an elderly woman's legs glimpsed from inside another empty store are transformed by Donaghy into nothing more than a formal element.
Donaghy moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1964 and immediately knocked on the door of the Swiss-born Frank, who would become his mentor. Frank quickly appreciated the younger man's gift, and the elder photographer's endorsement gave Donaghy credibility in the vanguard New York photo circles of the time.
Donaghy's work is derivative of Frank's, but only in the most superficial ways. Especially distinct from Frank's style is Donaghy's use of light and dark. Whereas Frank creates an even, almost realistic approach to his contrasts, Donaghy exaggerates the differences with saturated velvety blacks and glaring, unforgiving whites laid next to one another, almost like a half-tone. The effect is amply demonstrated in a 1964 New York shot that depicts a portly middle-aged man standing in the shadow of a doorway. The man is surrounded by the bright shimmer of the chrome door and walls. Donaghy pointedly shoots the scene out of focus as a way to heighten the brilliance of the reflected light on the gleaming metal.
The same out-of-focus treatment is seen in "Untitled (New York City, 1964)," an abstract that shows details of men's bodies as their paths cross on a crowded sidewalk. The sinuous curve of the man who strolls by in the foreground with a cigarette held behind his back transforms this street scene into a graphic design.
Donaghy made a significant impact, and just a few short years after the creation of his first serious photographs, he saw his photos exhibited at Eastman House and at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Then, in 1969, he dropped out of the medium.
Donaghy says he abandoned black-and-white photography when a series of personal events (he met his wife, Maggie Donaghy, and his cameras were stolen) coincided with his deeply held belief that "there was nowhere to go following that work."
Plus there was the appeal of the counterculture just then emerging, which Donaghy embraced with a vengeance, winding up at Woodstock, living out of a school bus for a time, and then finally arriving in Boulder in 1970, where he joined the city's flourishing Buddhist community. And though he has pursued painting, various craft media and even color photography in the 25 years he has lived in Colorado, Donaghy hasn't taken a single black-and-white photo.
Given the undeniable power of Donaghy's vision, his choice to abandon the medium may strike us as a mistake, indicative of a lost opportunity. But art-making is like that. Others have worked their whole lives and still not accomplished what Donaghy did in a few short years.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.