Focus Group

Perhaps because of its majestic scenery, or maybe because the skies are not cloudy all day, Colorado has become, in the twentieth century, an important regional center for fine-art photography. What's most remarkable about this wonderful state of affairs is that photography has flourished here in the near total absence of institutional support for it. Rarely are Colorado photographers seen on the walls of the Denver Art Museum or the Colorado History Museum, or even Denver's upstart Museum of Contemporary Art. As a result, monographs on individual photographers have also rarely been written--and there have been even fewer historical or contemporary surveys.

It is lucky for us, then, that supporters in the city's private sector have nurtured the local photo scene over the years. None of these enthusiasts is more notable than the revered Hal Gould, director of the Camera Obscura Gallery. Both Gould and his retail outlet are nationally known.

Gould is currently presenting Ferenc Berko: Sixty Years of Photography, which examines the career of a world-famous Aspen photographer. Berko's name should be a household word to those of us who live around here; that it isn't is the ignoble legacy of our art establishment's failure to chronicle the local photo scene. Thank goodness for the likes of Gould.

The Berko exhibit is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective. The photographs have not been displayed in chronological order, so it's left to viewers to follow Berko's stylistic development. That evolution is complicated, since he explored candid street photography as well as posed and staged compositions, apparently simultaneously; and he worked in the typical black-and-white at the same time he was experimenting with color.

Berko was born in Hungary in 1916. He was soon orphaned; family friends adopted him and raised him in Frankfurt, Germany. His new parents were interested in art and involved in the contemporary culture, so Berko came to know many of the great modern artists working in Germany in the 1920s, including fellow Hungarian Laszló Moholy-Nagy. As a young man, Berko also knew Paul Wolff, the inventor of the 35-millimeter camera. At fifteen, Berko began to teach himself the art of photography and film, and by the age of sixteen, he was creating credible avant-garde photographs.

With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s, Berko's guardians sent him to live in London in 1933 and Paris in 1934. He eventually went to India, where he remained until the end of World War II. Then his old friend Moholy-Nagy invited him to join the faculty of the nascent Institute of Design--essentially the transplanted Bauhaus, which had relocated to Chicago after the Nazis closed it down. (Today Chicago's world-famous engineering and architecture school is called the Illinois Institute of Technology.)

Unfortunately, when Berko arrived in Chicago in 1946 to teach film, Moholy-Nagy had died. In 1949, Berko, then a teacher at the institute, made the acquaintance of Walter Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America. More than anyone else, Paepcke was responsible for making Aspen not just another ski resort, but also a post-war outpost of art and culture. Paepcke was instrumental in creating the Aspen Institute, which still sponsors annual festivals in art, music and literature. He offered Berko a job photographing luminaries who were visiting Aspen and convinced him to move to the mountain town (as he had many other European emigres, including the late Herbert Bayer). Berko left Paepcke's employ in 1951 but remained in Aspen and launched a successful freelance career.

Camera Obscura director Gould first became aware of Berko in the 1950s, when Gould was a prominent commercial photographer. Gould soon became an amateur curator, too, and it was in this capacity that he included a photo by Berko in the 1959 Rush to the Rockies exhibit. That show commemorated the centennial of the 1859 Gold Rush and featured the work of Colorado's greatest photographers. This important presentation was mounted in the lobby of the First National Bank, because in the 1950s, no Denver galleries featured photography, and the medium was entirely banned from the Denver Art Museum.

Forty years later, Gould is presenting Berko's first solo show in Denver. For this local premiere, he has paid special attention to the first three decades of Berko's long career, no doubt a reflection of Gould's belief that "Berko was one of the pre-eminent photojournalists of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties."

The oldest photos in the show date from 1932, when the teenage Berko still lived in Frankfurt, and they demonstrate his prodigious gift. In a gelatin silver print identified only as "Frankfurt, Germany, 1932," Berko has inverted a shot of the reflections of bicycle riders in a flooded street. By turning the image upside down, Berko converts the candid piece into an abstract that at first glance seems to have been altered in the darkroom--but it wasn't.

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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