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Lens Is More

The spectacular blockbuster exhibit An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital, which highlights the photo collection of Hallmark Cards, is a third of the way through its three-month run at the Denver Art Museum. Denver is the seventh and last stop for the traveling show. Hallmark, the...
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The spectacular blockbuster exhibit An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital, which highlights the photo collection of Hallmark Cards, is a third of the way through its three-month run at the Denver Art Museum. Denver is the seventh and last stop for the traveling show.

Hallmark, the world's largest greeting-card producer, has been a corporate art collector since 1949. The photo collection, which comprises 5,000 pieces -- nearly 250 of them are seen in An American Century -- is just one of several put together by the Kansas City-based corporation. Others are devoted to contemporary painting, sculpture and ceramics.

Those with limited exposure to photography will probably recognize about a dozen shots in An American Century, and those with a passing interest in the field may recognize a hundred. But here's the twist: In a mammoth show such as this one, even viewers who are deeply knowledgeable about photography will see things they've never seen before.

"The collection has so many rare and unusual images," says Blake Milteer, photo assistant for the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department. The exhibit includes works by both famous and little-known photographers, Milteer notes, and many pieces are the finest examples imaginable.

The historic sweep of the show is breathtaking. Working their way through the DAM's Hamilton Galleries, visitors take an informed gambol from the 1880s to the 1980s -- the hundred years of the show's title -- plus a bonus: a handful of things from the 1990s.

As longtime readers of this column know, I believe that chronological organization within stylistic categories is the best way to survey historic material. The chief alternative is the invariably unsuccessful thematic structure, in which pieces are linked according to subject matter. Putting portraits in one room and landscapes in another is an anti-intellectual approach meant to attract a non-art audience; nonetheless, theme shows have been all the rage across the country -- and at the DAM -- over the past few years. Chronological ordering introduces important content such as historic context and aesthetic development into an exhibit. In a thematically organized show, there is no intellectual content -- which, I guess, is the point.

Hmmm. An intelligently and beautifully organized collection crowded with well-known masterpieces and esoteric gems. Hey, wait a minute -- these are the hallmarks of a nearly extinct breed: the connoisseur. In fact, just such an aesthete and scholar is at the helm at Hallmark: fine-art program director, curator and historian Keith Davis.

Davis was originally hired in 1979 as curator of the Hallmark Fine Art Collections. At the time, the photo collection (which was initiated in 1964 with the acquisition of selected works by Harry Callahan), was midsized, with 600 photos. Davis not only expanded the collection to its present size, but shaped it in the process.

Davis was already a photo expert when he arrived at Hallmark, having been a graduate student of the legendary Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s. Newhall, the founding photo curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, had made UNM an important center for photo history. While in grad school, Davis also worked as a researcher at the George Eastman House in New York, another place that championed the history of photography.

In the 1970s, appreciation for photography was just getting a substantial foothold in the academic and art worlds. Until then, interest in the form had been limited to the work of specialists. Davis was part of a new wave of photo historians, and the legacy of his generation is evidenced by the vaunted position of photography in the fine arts today.

Davis organized the Hallmark exhibition and was involved to an unprecedented degree for an out-of-town curator, down to the show's installation and the content of the wall text. And because he is a connoisseur, he spent no time thinking up cute gimmicks like try-me-on costumes or sit-with-me games -- things that so often muck up DAM-organized shows and distract viewers from the art itself.

An American Century is divided into four sections, each representing a period of approximately 25 years. It fills at least nine galleries and additional connecting spaces. It's so vast that you might want to see it twice, as I did, to absorb it all.

The first section, "A Reluctant Modernism: 1885-1915," focuses on photographs made with the then-revolutionary dry-plate printing process. Previously, wet-plate printing with glass-plate negatives had been the norm. The wet plates needed to be developed immediately after exposure, which meant, for instance, that photographers of the 1870s had to travel with their darkrooms in tow.

The development of dry-plate printing and other technological advances, including the invention of roll film and the introduction of small portable cameras, sparked an explosion of interest in photography. Davis begins the show by looking at the practitioners who embraced these technical breakthroughs.

At the time, many photographers inadvertently created art while doing scientific work. One famous example is Eadweard Muybridge, who was interested in recording movement in still photographs, which made him a motion-picture pioneer, too. The signature Muybridge in the Hallmark show, "High Jump," is a collotype print from 1885. For this functional but elegant photograph, Muybridge took a series of twelve carefully timed and evenly spaced shots of a near-naked man carrying out a high jump.

Other photos that were also conceived as scientific documents but which today are regarded as artworks include those of Francis Blake and Bertha Jaques.

Science was only one thing that inspired photographers at the end of the nineteenth century. Davis looks at many other tendencies, especially those that produced the pictorial movement. While scientists like Muybridge were accidentally making art, the pictorialists were pointedly creating it. Characteristics of the pictorial style are soft focus and low contrast between tones.

The works of some of the most important pictorialists are on display at the DAM, including two fabulous photos by F. Holland Day. The first is the diminutive "I Thirst," a glycerin-developed platinum print from 1898. It is a portrait of a model portraying Christ, from Day's "Seven Last Words of Christ" series. The second is "Youth With Staff Shielding Eyes," a platinum print from 1906 of a partially nude male model in a pose and costume suggestive of ancient Rome.

The second part of An American Century is titled "Abstraction and Realism: 1915-1940." If the earlier photographers were 'reluctant' modernists, this later group is more fully and self-consciously a part of the modern movement.

The early abstractionists are a revelation; their compositions are as cutting-edge as those of the edgiest abstract painters. Take a look at "Design-Curves," by Margaret Watkins, a gelatin silver print of a domestic still life that's taken so close up it looks non-objective. Not bad for 1919. Paul Outerbridge's "Piano Study," a platinum print from 1924, is also fairly non-objective, and the piano, seen at a tight angle, becomes a vehicle for geometric abstraction.

One of the most famous proponents of the realist movement is its founder, Alfred Stieglitz. There are several Stieglitz photos in the show, including two portraits of his longtime companion, Georgia O'Keeffe; a platinum print from 1918; and a gelatin silver print from 1933. Paul Strand and Colorado's own Laura Gilpin are other early realists featured here.

Also in this section are Edward Weston, the artists in his circle and the "f/64" group. And there's work linked to modern art, such as the surrealist photo by George Platt Lynes, "Endymion and Selene," a gelatin silver print from the 1930s.

The third part of the show, "From Public to Private Concerns: 1940-1965," highlights famous post-war photographers such as Minor White, Irving Penn and Eliot Porter.

O. Winston Link's remarkable "Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia," a gelatin silver montage done in 1956, is included in this section. The familiar image shows a speeding train passing by a drive-in theater packed with cars; there's an airplane on the screen. I've seen this Link composition before, in silver print form, but I never realized it was a montage: The airplane on the drive-in's screen is a separate photo that's been pieced in.

The new photographers of the 1960s are here, too, among them Diane Arbus, whose work perhaps connects better with photographers from after 1965. The Arbus on display is a weird one: "A castle in Disneyland," from 1962, is a creepy Arbus-y night view of Sleeping Beauty's castle. Holding their own in this section are blurry New York shots by Roy DeCarava, one from the '50s and one from the '60s.

The show ends with "The Image Transformed: 1965-present" -- "present" meaning the 1990s, when the show was put together.

Although contemporary photography takes many forms, some photographers continue to use traditional methods. Robert Adams is one; he is represented by two Colorado scenes, 1969's "'Frontier' Gas Station and Pike's Peak, Colorado Springs," and 1979's "Longmont, Colorado," both gelatin silver prints.

Adams was a hugely successful photographer who received the MacArthur prize -- the so-called genius grant -- in the 1990s. He lived in Colorado Springs in the 1960s and '70s and studied with the late Myron Wood (who is not in this show). Wood learned the art of photography from early realist Laura Gilpin, providing a direct link between her and late social realist Adams.

Others have left the realm of pure photography and gotten into what's called "photo-based work." Among them is John Baldessari, who is represented by a major piece, "Life's Balance (With Money)," a photogravure and aquatint from 1989-90. Visual artists, too, have used photography in their work, Andy Warhol is an obvious one. The single Warhol in the show is an example of his stitched photographs -- in this case, four gelatin silver prints of Lana Turner that have been sewn together. The piece was done sometime between 1976 and 1986.

The demure quality of the Warhol makes a point: This is a corporate collection, and it's headquartered in the Midwest. To his credit, Davis has not shied away from controversial photographers such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. However, each is represented by work that, while characteristic of the artist's signature style, is extremely tame. The Mapplethorpe is a portrait of a man with a shaved head, the Serrano an example of his blood-immersion pieces.

But it's a minor complaint in a show so filled with riches. To put a fine point on the issue, I believe it's the best photography show ever presented in Denver. It's certainly the best one I've ever seen here.

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