Camera Obscura's impending closure truly marks the end of an era

The phrase "end of an era" has lost much of its meaning because it's been so overused, but I can't think of anything more appropriate to say about the impending closure of the Camera Obscura Gallery. In business since 1980, Camera Obscura was among the first galleries in the country to feature photography in a fine-art context. While it's almost impossible to imagine a time when photography wasn't regarded as an art form, owner Hal Gould remembers, and he still has the fire and the passion of an advocate for a contentious cause even though he's in his nineties.

Gould was born in Clark, Wyoming, in 1920 and raised in New Mexico, where his father operated a combination guest and working ranch. He got his first camera — a Kodak fifty-year-anniversary box camera — in 1932, while he was in junior high school, paying for the purchase with his earnings from selling Liberty magazines.

Though it was a beloved hobby, Gould didn't imagine that he'd have a future in photography, and he went to Baylor University in Dallas to study dentistry. Before he could complete his studies, though, he was drafted into the Army during WWII, ultimately being discharged in 1946. Gould went to Chicago and enrolled in the Ray-Vogue School of Art and, later, the Winona School of Professional Photography and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Windy City was then a center for fine-art photography, and Gould wound up studying with several important figures of the time at the Institute of Design, including Harry Callahan and Art Siegel.

In 1950, Gould moved back west, working as a commercial photographer in Casper, Wyoming, before heading to Denver in 1955 to open a commercial studio of his own, the House of Photography in Cherry Creek North. Though he necessarily focused on satisfying portrait and magazine commissions, he also took fine-art shots and was deeply interested in promoting fine-art photography.

It was a tough road, though. In the late '50s, for instance, Gould and two friends rented a vacant pharmacy on Colfax Avenue and presented a show of photos by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Today these photos are highly prized, with some selling for over $1 million. But even though Gould priced some of the Adams and Weston photos as low as $15, "we didn't sell a single print during the course of the show," he says.

Undeterred by this reality check, Gould helped create the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in 1963 and the Upper Level Gallery, which was above it. Both were founded to address a problem: Like many other museums, the Denver Art Museum, under the direction of Otto Bach, refused to exhibit photos. The Upper Level Gallery was one of the only venues of its type in the country, something that generated a lot of publicity. The goal was to introduce Denver audiences to the history of photography and to the greats in the then-contemporary realm. The first show Gould put on was dedicated to the work of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady; other shows highlighted Adams and Weston.

For nearly eighteen years, Gould presented shows in the gallery, but a contentious dispute with the CPAC board led to his breaking away and founding his own gallery, Camera Obscura, in 1980. He explains that he used the name because, at its heart, all photography employs a form of the camera obscure — a darkened space. Still in the same location today, Camera Obscura was the first private commercial gallery in the U.S. devoted to the display and sale of fine-art photography.

Gould closed the House of Photography that same year to focus on Camera Obscura, where he continued his practice of showcasing the work of nationally or internationally known photographers, as well as local photo stars. He also began publishing the PFA Newsletter, which to this day has kept readers abreast of photography news in Denver and from around the world.

When I first went into Camera Obscura, back in the '90s, I was struck by how unique it was. First, it was the kind of gallery that I could remember from my childhood. In those days, a lot of galleries were in funky and cramped old houses with art hanging on every square inch of wall, and with dining rooms and bedrooms informally transformed into exhibition spaces by the addition of white paint and ceiling-mounted lights. Second, it had an amazing number of photos and books crammed into a series of tight spaces. On my most recent visit last week, I was struck again, but this time by how little has changed, despite the fact that Gould has been selling things off hand over fist for the past couple of months, preparing to move out.

One of the final exhibits at Camera Obscura is dedicated to Gould. Hal D. Gould, M Photo: Life's Work surveys his career, but not as a retrospective — at least from my point of view. Instead, the show samples different types of work, including portraits, nudes, landscapes of various types, abstracts and travel pictures. Gould's strongest work is in the category of Western art. His '50s-era shots of cattle ranching are stunning, like "Round Up, Hole in the Wall, Wyoming" which depicts the cowboys herding steers into a pen with a magnificent scenic backdrop of the mountains. It has all the power of an epic Western movie. Also exuding a lot of power — and charm — is "Black Foot Tepees, Montana," depicting an Indian settlement on the plains. One of the strangest and most intriguing of the Western shots is "Alicia Alonso," which shows the ballerina performing Giselle at Red Rocks with the lighted dancer standing out from the natural rock outcropping behind her. It's really fabulous.

These early landscapes and scenic views are tremendous, but Gould didn't lose his skills as the years wore on; another spectacular set of images was taken in the 1990s on Mount Goliath. Gould's subjects are the bristlecone pines that live there, which are some of the oldest trees on earth. Gould described to me the painstaking preparations he had to make to take these shots, waiting for the natural light to be just right.

In addition to the Gould show, Camera Obscura is hosting Loretta Young-Gautier: Retrospective, an exhibit dedicated to the work of Gould's longtime co-director. Young-Gautier first came into Camera Obscura in 1981 when she was a student of the late Ron Wohlauer, and a dozen years later, she offered to volunteer for Gould. This led to part-time employment and then full-time work. She calls herself the "head chef and bottle-washer."

Her show is wide-ranging as well, and though there is a body of Western-themed work, such as "Round Up," which is an altered image crowded with running horses, there are also some strange surrealistic pieces, such as "Equinox." She has been technically experimental, with some of the prints in crisp focus and others with crumbly surfaces.

Young-Gautier will continue to work with Gould after the gallery closes to inventory, move and sell photos and books. Gould even hopes to resurrect Camera Obscura as a non-profit space. Did I mention that the guy is in his nineties?

On Saturday, April 30, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., Camera Obscura will hold a farewell party for supporters, patrons, volunteers and friends. And then it's one for the history books.

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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