Frames of Reference

Two compelling photography exhibits now at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities include nearly 100 works of art--and almost as many different ideas.

The first show starts off with a titillating posted proviso: Children will not be admitted unless accompanied by an adult. But don't get too excited. Though there are nude photos here, The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present is no peep show. Instead, it's a survey of more than 150 years of figure photography--as well as a cogent political analysis of that art form's role in society.

There is hardly any work here that could rightly be called erotic; after all, denigrating eroticism in photography is all the rage now, and it's not hard to understand why. Even more than public sculpture, nude photography is the art form most capable of raising public ire. On the left side of the political spectrum, feminists decry its objectification of women; on the right, conservatives simply view it as immoral. But both groups will be satisfied by the close-to-the-vest approach taken in The Body and the Lens. In fact, the show has the kind of sanitized content appropriate to a provincial venue in, for example, Jefferson County. That's not to say that The Body and the Lens is wishy-washy--it most emphatically isn't--but just that its more radical points are made subtly, with only an occasional hint of stridency.

This traveling show originated at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, and all the photos are from the Spencer's permanent collection. A tremendous collection it is, too, featuring everything from early-nineteenth-century tintypes to a who's who of contemporary photographers.

The Body and the Lens was organized by Spencer curator John Pultz, who also serves as a professor at KU. He made his selections not in an attempt to show off his university's collection--though the exhibit does that--but instead to illustrate a series of ideas he's developed about the relationship of photography to modernism and about how photography can help define society. Viewers may not agree with, or even clearly understand, Pultz's sometimes inconsistent conclusions, but they should enjoy the show he's laid out along the way.

Pultz's basic premise is that since photography's development coincides with the rise of modernism, photography is the quintessential modern art form. However, according to him, it's also wholly separable from the modern movement. In the catalogue that accompanies the show, Pultz writes that his aim is to untangle "photography from the Modernist rhetoric that has been used to define it throughout its history."

The show is essentially presented in chronological order, guiding the viewer from early works in which photography was used as a scientific or documentary tool to a final section where postmodernism and gender politics reign supreme. However, Pultz doesn't construct a single intellectual thread that runs from the beginning of the show to the end. His aim is not to simply conduct a march through history, but to illustrate a multiplicity of artistic currents. Given how complicated his many messages are (despite his attempts to explain them in an extensive series of text panels), it's a good thing Pultz has chosen the chronological tack. This reliable old approach--which, sadly, is seen less and less around here--is essential to making sense out of The Body and the Lens.

One of the most remarkable of the older photos, and one that will be familiar to many viewers from history books, is "Plate 361, Animal Locomotion," a collotype of 1887 by Eadweard Muybridge, an English-born American photographer. Muybridge is often seen as a pioneer of both photography and filmmaking; in this "Locomotion" study, one of many such works done by the photographer, he records for scientific purposes the movements of a nude man in shots taken in quick succession.

Pultz's inclusion of a scientific document like Muybridge's collotype reflects his view that the distinction between fine-art photography and documentary photography is a false one. Pultz also pays his respects to the much-maligned posed commercial portrait, most notably via "Madam Sperber Group," a shot of a well-dressed African-American madam surrounded by prostitutes. This fairly recent gelatin silver print was made from a 1906 negative by American Joseph Judd Pennell. Pultz points out in the accompanying catalogue that all of the women, even the famous Madam Sperber, have averted their eyes from the photographer. The reason, he suggests, may have been racial: Pennell was white.

By breaking down the borders between photographic styles, Pultz is able to include a wide range of material. Still, the best things here are pretty much what you'd expect: great examples of modernist photography from its heyday in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Standouts in this regard include Hungarian Ervin Marton's untitled 1930 silver print of a reclining nude woman and a 1935 shot of a standing nude woman by American photographer George Platt Lynes. Stylistically, the Lynes photo is similar to 1949's "Nude Foot," an exquisite gelatin silver print by American photographer Minor White that depicts a rear view of a nude black man. In both photos, the heads of the figures have been cropped out of the frame.

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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