Arts and Sciences

Up until the 1960s, people argued in all seriousness that photography was not a fine art because a machine was used to produce it. Today this seems not just naive, but incredibly wrong, as photography is now the predominant form in all types of contemporary art. Photos themselves are a big deal, but they're also the spark of inspiration in the types of painting, printmaking and sculpture that incorporate photographic imagery. Not only that, but the raft of new digital media, including films, video and webcasting, can all trace their origins back to photos.

When photography was developed in the early nineteenth century, the medium was first a part of science, because it relied on scientific inventions. Almost immediately, it was taken up by journalists as an aid to recording the activities of the time. Science and journalism, of course, are still part of the mix, but in the second half of that century, fine artists began to use photos to create preliminary "sketches" for works in other mediums and to create photographs that were art.

In the 1890s, developments in photographic printmaking and the widespread influence of impressionist painting came together to lead to the development of a style called pictorialism. Photos in this style are characterized by soft focus, which gives them an atmospheric quality and sets them apart as art, and not scientific documents or news.

Thanks to the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, the memory of Colorado's place in the pictorialist movement has been preserved and is now on display in Denver¹s Pictorial Photographer, hosted by Gallery Roach. The exhibit, with photos culled from CPAC's important permanent collection, is a solo highlighting the gorgeous work of the late R. Ewing Stiffler, who lived in Colorado in the early twentieth century. Though I've seen a couple of Stifflers over the years at CPAC, the last major exhibition of his work was in 1935, when his photos were presented at the Denver Art Museum. So it's no exaggeration to call the show at Roach a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Stiffler was born in Missouri in 1888 and moved as a teenager to Colorado in 1904. He attended what is now the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley from 1908 to 1911, specializing in fine and industrial art. He subsequently studied at various art schools, including the prestigious Chicago Art Institute.

After graduation, Stiffler bought a wheat farm near Sterling and became involved in public education in that area. In 1921 he moved back to Denver and switched his career to architecture. For a time, he was in a partnership, Jamieson & Stiffler, but mostly he worked on his own until he retired in 1958. He died in 1966 at Denver General Hospital.

The Stiffler photos at Roach date from the 1920s and '30s, and they're absolutely beautiful. The city views, not only of Denver, but also of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other places, are the best exemplars in this show of the classic pictorialist aesthetic. So many of the Stifflers of this type are good that it's impossible to point out all of those worth checking out. Still, a few highlights are "Mystic Manhattan," with the skyscrapers shrouded in fog as seen from inside a dark archway, and "Washington Weather," where the Capitol is depicted as an apparition behind the trees. A few of these city scenes are set in Denver, including "The Memorial," a monumental shot of the Cheesman Park Pavilion in which the structure's white marble columns are so bleached out by the sun that they appear ghost-like.

Stiffler's figure studies and landscapes also fit the definition of pictorialism, but both types seem to be pushing at the edges of the movement and could be called hybrids. In one of Stiffler's best-known images, "Labor Glorified," which depicts two men working on a radiator, there's a whiff of Lewis Hine's heroic staged-documentary style. And there's something almost Margaret Bourke-White about "Quiet Afternoon." But both Stiffler photos also sport those pictorialist standards of reflected light and soft focus, two things neither Hine nor Bourke-White would ever have done -- at least not in the same way.

Some of the most surprising Stifflers are his many mountain landscapes, which provide a wonderful addition to the history of Western scenic photography. "Summer Showers" is out of this world, with a sunlit rainstorm providing a veil obscuring most, if not all, of the mountain range that lies beyond.

Denver's Pictorial Photographer is the first in a series of planned CPAC-sponsored exhibits to be held in various places around the metro area. This crash-pad approach is necessary because CPAC gave up its own gallery this past fall. John Davenport, who works at Roach and serves on the CPAC board, points out that the organization operated without a permanent home in the '70s and '80s and still maintained a presence in the community. That's the intention now, too, and I've got to say that though I've been skeptical about CPAC's future, I think the group is going to pull it off. As long as they consistently put on shows as strong as this Stiffler solo, that is.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia