Getting the Picture

There are only a few days left to catch Hal D. Gould: Visual Legacy at the Camera Obscura Gallery. The important show highlights the long career of a significant figure in the world of local fine-art photography, and believe it or not, after fifty years of photography, this is Gould's first solo.

With his signature cowboy boots and bolo tie, it's no surprise to find that Gould is a lifelong Westerner.

Born near Clark, Wyoming, in 1920, Gould was, as he says, "raised up in New Mexico." His father ran a combination guest and working ranch in the Jemez Mountains in an area that today is part of the San Pedro Park Wilderness area. But with no guests during World War II, "my dad was forced to sell the place," Gould recalls. "He got $12,000 for 160 acres of high mountain valley -- it would be worth $2 million today."

Gould first developed an interest in photography in the 1930s, while he was in junior high school, and went on to become the photographer for his high school yearbook. "I got my first camera in 1932 by selling Liberty [a magazine]," he says. "It was a Kodak fifty-year-anniversary box camera."

Despite this early interest, Gould didn't immediately realize he had a future in photography. He studied dentistry at Baylor University in Dallas but was drafted before he could finish, and never went back. After leaving the Army in 1946, Gould enrolled in the Ray-Vogue School of Art in Chicago, then later attended the Winona School of Professional Photography and the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago in the 1940s was a center for fine-art photography, and Gould studied with several important figures, including Art Siegel and Harry Callahan, both of whom taught at the Institute of Design.

Since photography is so firmly fixed among the fine arts today, it may be hard to imagine that at that time, most of the art world regarded the medium with contempt. Many didn't consider photography to be a kind of art at all, since the method involves mechanical, and not hand-made, reproductions. "When I was a student, there wasn't a single art school or university in the country that offered a degree in photography," Gould recalls with resentment.

But if most sneered at photos, Gould loved them, so much so that in addition to being a working photographer, he began a study of the history of photography and has often lectured on the subject, beginning at a time when few others were interested.

In 1950 Gould returned to the West, taking a job as a commercial photographer in Casper, Wyoming. The oldest -- and some of the finest -- photos in the show at Camera Obscura date from this period. In 1955 he moved to Denver, where he has lived ever since.

The post-war period was a boom time in Denver, and success was all but guaranteed when Gould opened his own studio, the House of Photography, in Cherry Creek North. He ran the studio until 1980, and although he focused on commercial photography, he also took fine-art shots.

Since he was still interested in the history of photography, Gould began to moonlight as a curator as well, and beginning in 1963, he presented shows in the Upper Level Gallery. As its name suggests, the nonprofit space was upstairs from the offices of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, which itself was founded in 1963. Originally, CPAC, which now flourishes in digs in the Highland neighborhood, was housed a few doors south of the Camera Obscura, at the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street.

"I was the original executive secretary of CPAC and the director of exhibits at the Upper Level Gallery for eighteen years," Gould says. "My salary was one dollar a year -- but I never did cash the checks."

According to Gould and others, CPAC and the Upper Level Gallery were founded because the Denver Art Museum wouldn't exhibit photography. "Otto Bach [the DAM's then-director] bragged that there would be no photos exhibited at the museum as long as he was there," Gould says. And Bach was there a long time, from the 1930s to the 1970s. But Bach wasn't alone. In the early 1960s, there were only a few venues in the entire country for fine-art photography; the Upper Level Gallery was one of them.

"We showed all the great artists in the history of photography," says Gould, who organized seven exhibits a year there. "Our first show was Mathew Brady." He then clicks off a list of other big-name talents presented at the Upper Level Gallery, including Paul Strand, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Because of the DAM's intransigence, each of these shows marked a Denver first.

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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

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