Flash Back

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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