Flash Back

Over the past ten years, the city's galleries, art centers and museums have done a number of exhibits charting out the region's art history -- a scholarly and aesthetic pursuit that's still in its infancy. Most of these shows have spotlighted vintage paintings and, to a lesser extent, prints and ceramics. One topic, however, has been given short shrift: the history of local photography, which is something that almost no one knows anything about. I know I don't.

Here's my entire storehouse of knowledge on the matter: I know the work of Colonel William Henry Jackson, William Pennington, Laura Gilpin, Myron Wood and Robert Adams. That's it. I've barely even heard of most of the artists whose works appear in Early Colorado Contemporary Photography, currently at Gallery Sink in Highland.

Truthfully, only one of them is well known, and that's James Milmoe, who is the primary force behind this exhibit. Milmoe earned his living as a commercial photographer, but he also moonlighted as a fine artist. His fifty-year career in the area has been distinguished, with numerous photos being published and various art institutions, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, acquiring his works.

For the show at Sink, Milmoe includes his own work along with that of five of his contemporaries: Walter Chappell, Arnold Gassan, Syl Labrot, Nile Root and Winter Prather. This loosely associated group of kindred modernists worked in town in the '50s and '60s. Most participated in workshops conducted by legendary photographer Minor White, who encouraged experimentation, and all of them explored vanguard ideas in fine-art photography.

The names of these photographers are unfamiliar because there is a lack of institutional support for exploring Colorado's twentieth-century art history. Though there are credible collections of paintings from the period, most notably at the Kirkland Museum, there just aren't any caches of modernist photos by local artists. In fact, most of Early Contemporary Colorado Photography came out of Milmoe's private collection, which he has assembled over the years with his wife, Marilynn. Milmoe sought out some loans to beef up the exhibit, but the idiosyncrasies of a personal collection still show through, as some photographers are seen in depth while others are barely sketched out.

As expected, there's a horde of Milmoes, and his section starts off the show. The prominent, up-front placement might seem egocentric, but it was gallery director Mark Sink and Fort Collins-based curator Jack Curfman who made that call. And anyway, the front-porch-like space at Sink is terrible, so it's hardly the plum spot it could be.

Milmoe was predominantly interested in finding abstracts in the real world: There are blown-up close-ups of flaking surfaces, marred plywood sheets and piles of debris. In some, he left the image unaltered, producing detailed shots, while in others he monkeyed around with the prints in the darkroom, adding and removing things to clarify his chosen imagery.

Among the photos of the first type -- everyday things straightforwardly shot and made abstract through cropping -- are "Peeled Silver Paint" and the very similar "Poster Wall." In each, a cluster of curling planes becomes a vaguely surrealist vignette. In "Circle Study," Milmoe shot a scrap of wood that had been used as a guard beneath a drill press. The wood is covered with circles formed by the different bits, creating a random, lyrical pattern.

There are also a number of altered photos that resemble abstract-expressionist prints, such as "Space Warp," a black-and-white composition of junk accumulated under a pier. The saturated black elements are gorgeous. This piece was actually displayed at the Denver Art Museum in the 1950s, making it the first photo since the 1930s to have gotten through the institution's door, because longtime DAM director Otto Bach didn't consider the medium a legitimate art form. How times have changed: Photography and photo-based mediums are arguably the leading forms of the art of our time.

The side gallery holds a small selection of photos by Walter Chappell. Most of Chappell's early work -- negatives and all -- was destroyed in a studio fire in 1961, so the surviving early images are very valuable. The show includes a dozen pieces by him, all but two of which are for sale at Sink. In the '50s, Chappell did a stint at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona before coming to Denver. He left our area a few years later, however, to be curator at the George Eastman House in New York. He spent most of his later years in New Mexico.

Chappell's taking-off point was nature photography, but he gives the venerable tradition several twists. In "Untitled (Reeds and Sun)," a close-up of a stand of reeds, the actual plants are hard to distinguish from their reflected images on the water, making the piece appear more abstract than it is. In two later Chappells, leaves are backlit so that smallish blips of bright white follow their contours.

Across from the Chappells is a work by Arnold Gassan, the only example by the artist in Milmoe's collection. In the '50s, Gassan did a series on Denver's skid row, then Larimer Street, and Milmoe had hoped to find some of those images. Gallery director Sink did locate some, but they were in a museum in Canada. The one Gassan in the show is fairly poetic, depicting in moody black and white a pitchfork leaning against a wall. The narrative does not include any figures, but implies their existence through the appearance of the garden tool itself. I'd love to see those Larimer Street pictures, which I'm sure have some of the same strengths. It's really a shame that Milmoe could not locate other Gassans; after all, Gassan was the pivotal player in the group, having been the one who invited Minor White to come to Denver to conduct his workshops.

Next to the Gassan are three photos by Syl Labrot. According to Milmoe, when Labrot became involved with the rest of the group, he was doing postcard/placemat scenes of snow-covered mountains and picturesque barns. The pieces at Sink have nothing to do with that hackneyed approach. The Visual Studies Workshop, where Labrot taught after leaving Denver, loaned all four of his pieces; Milmoe supplemented the section with copies of Labrot books, including Pleasure Beach, from the 1970s, a visually exciting compendium of abstract color photos laid out in an elegantly designed package.

In the passageway that leads back to the office are half a dozen images by Nile Root. Born in Denver, Root learned photography in the United States Navy during World War II, returning to the area in 1947. He made his living in scientific and medical photography, but his first love was fine art. His work is very similar to Chappell's, and, like Chappell, he starts with nature and ends up with abstraction, as in "Canyon Near Denver" and "Leaves," both from the 1960s. In the 1970s, he moved to New York to teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology, then a photo powerhouse. After his retirement, he wound up in Tucson in the late 1980s.

The last part of the show, installed in the main gallery, is devoted to Winter Prather, who is clearly the star of the exhibit. In the same way that the Milmoe section could be seen as a solo, so, too, can this part.

The selections reveal that Prather was a photographic genius. Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness to the point of being institutionalized for the last decades of his life. (He died in 2005.) Milmoe believes that Prather's madness was brought on by the use of dangerous materials to print his photographs. Before the 1970s, there was little understanding on the part of artists about the potential health risks of art materials -- which were considerable for photographers, as the printing process involved exposure to a lot of possibly deadly chemicals.

Before Prather's problems took over his life, he created photographs that were both beautiful and intelligent. In the late 1950s and into the early '70s, he was doing work that updated earlier styles -- something just about everyone else got into a decade later. In fact, all of the Prathers look downright contemporary, even though the newest one is more than thirty years old.

Several of the older ones come out of pictorialism, an early-twentieth-century photo movement characterized by blurriness. In some, Prather zooms in on a tree or a snatch of twigs, throws it out of focus and -- voilà! --it's abstract surrealism.

The strongest photos -- and the most convincingly abstract -- are the industrial landscapes Prather did in the 1950s. In these, he capitalizes on the geometry inherent in functional, unadorned structures. In "Bridge," Prather constructs an expressionist composition by focusing on an elaborate joint of girders. In "Industrial," he finds lyricism in smokestacks and venting tubes.

Like the neo-pictorialist pieces, these industrial compositions also come out of the history of photography -- in this case, vanguard Russian photography of the '30s and Life magazine pictures from the same period. Again, Prather was way ahead of the curve in this retro pursuit, since it wasn't until the 1990s that most people seriously looked at the earlier material and started responding to it stylistically.

I have to say that before I heard about Early Colorado Contemporary Photography, I'd never even thought about the topic. The show at Sink, which really should have been titled Classic Modern Photography in Colorado, is so good, it could have been presented in one of our area museums. Though it is not a proper survey and could hardly be called inclusive, it's a good starting point for further exploration into the local photo scene of that time, which apparently was pretty cool. And with the season just about half over, it's not too early to say that the Sink exhibition is definitely one of the most interesting thus far.

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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