Not Black and White

More than any other fine-art medium, photography presents itself in myriad guises. It plays a variety of roles, depending on the context. In fact, the vast majority of photographs are not works of art at all -- not because they're badly done (well, not only that), but because they were never intended to be.

Think of snapshots. Nearly everyone has a camera, and amateur photography is one of the country's most popular hobbies. (I guess that's why the digital camera is predicted to be a top-five holiday gift this Christmas.) On the other end of the scale are scientific photographs. Some of the oldest photos from the nineteenth century were intended only to advance science, much like today's images being sent back by the Hubble telescope.

Then, of course, there's photojournalism. You know, the images that win Pulitzers because of their narrative punch. Plus, there's photography used in advertising and fashion. And don't forget pornography.

The problem with all of this subdividing is that at the end of the process, there's an object. Whether it's been made as an example of fine art, porn or anything else, the result is exactly the same: a photograph. It's not who took the photo or why; it's the photo itself that matters.

What brings this to mind is a constellation of photo shows, each illustrating a different aspect of the discussion. First up is Native View, at the Denver Public Library's Western Art Gallery, for which antique photos of American Indians were culled from the fields of ethnography and anthropology. At Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo is The Photography of Alfred Stieglitz, a magnificent solo exhibit that explores a key figure in the establishment of photography as a fine art. And, finally, another solo exhibit, Ralph Morse, at Cherry Creek's Gallery M, highlights one of photojournalism's living legends.

The Central Library's Western Art Gallery is just off the elevator lobby on the fifth floor, adjacent to the Western History department, which administers it. Senior Western History staff member Kay Wisnia organized Native View as part of her many duties at the library, and, as usual, she's done a great job. While doing research for the department, Wisnia helps people who are investigating their own Western art collections, thereby giving her easy access to both show ideas and the materials needed to put together wonderful displays. In fact, Native View primarily comprises photographs assembled by a collector who is also a Western History department habitué, Robert G. Lewis.

The show features formal portraits and documentary shots from the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries that depict the last of the Mohicans, so to speak. The oldest images in the show date from the 1850s, which is very early for photos of any kind. The portrait "Ka-ka-kel, Chief Little Crow," by Julian Vannerson, one of the official photographers for the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, shows the chief standing at ease on a floral rug (a particularly nice touch), decked out in full regalia as he leans on a draped, festooned spear. Though intended only as a document, from today's vantage, it looks closer to a painting than a ledger page. Vannerson renders Chief Little Crow not with scientific accuracy, but by artistically envisioning him as an idealized Roman soldier.

Images by Alexander Gardner and Antonio Zeno Shindler, two of Vannerson's co-workers, are also included in Native View. Shindler's "Wa-Hu-Ke-Zi-Nom-Pa," from 1867, is unforgettable. The regal chief, seated in a fussy Victorian chair, stares at the viewer. Shindler's deep focus is breathtaking. Like Vannerson, Shindler created a work of art -- even if he didn't want to.

I think that Edward S. Curtis, who began as a Seattle portrait photographer, wanted to make art even if it wasn't his primary goal. Native View includes samples from his famous twenty-volume portfolio of photogravures titled "The North American Indian," in which he aimed to capture the length and breadth of the American Indian experience. It took him from 1907 to 1930, and the resulting images are romantic photos of Native Americans that are enhanced by the sepia-colored ink used to print them for Native View. The highly detailed compositions and lighting in a Curtis photo are invariably perfect, providing viewers with a lot of insight into his subjects.

Despite the artistic flair in his works, however, Curtis was still a documentarian. It was Alfred Stieglitz who set out to push photography into the fine arts -- kicking and screaming, I might add. Yet his photos, as seen in The Photography of Alfred Stieglitz at Metro, aren't so different from those taken by Curtis.

The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York, organized this traveling exhibit, which marks the first time most of these Stieglitz photos have left the museum since being donated. Most were a gift to Eastman House by Stieglitz's more famous wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe. In 1951, O'Keeffe gave the museum more than eighty of the most important photos of Stieglitz's career, which lasted from the 1890s to the 1930s.

It was a real coup for Metro to get the show, and the credit goes to former director Sally Perisho. During her nearly decade-long run at Metro, Perisho presented a series of exhibits devoted to the masters of photography, with previous outings having featured the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. Perisho was dismissed last December, but her cultural contribution continues with the Stieglitz show.

Her successor, Kathy Andrews, who spent many years at the helm of the Arvada Center, handsomely installed the exhibit and overcame a host of problems, not the least of which was light. Lights are dimmed throughout the gallery, and the rooms are all but dark -- with the exception of the northwest gallery, whose huge west-facing windows make it too bright even with the shades down. Andrews's solution was to display reproductions of Stieglitz's early lantern slides in the space, but this forces viewers to experience his early work at the end of the show, and that bugs me. It's a minor complaint, though, for an exhibit this good.

Stylistically, Stieglitz's work varies widely. The oldest pieces are part of the pictorialist movement that started at the turn of the nineteenth century, in which photos were crafted to look like paintings, especially impressionist ones. In the entry gallery are many photos of this type, such as "The Street," a photogravure from 1896 in which Stieglitz used the overcast atmosphere and mist as tools to eliminate sharp photographic details.

In 1917, Stieglitz moved beyond his quaint roots in pictorialism and embraced modernism in various forms, as traced out in the series of gallery spaces across the back of the Metro Center. It was at this time that Stieglitz began using O'Keeffe as a model, so the show subtitle, O'Keeffe's Enduring Legacy, reflects both her role as original donor of the photos and, for some of them, the muse.

Many of these works show only O'Keeffe's hands, as in one from the 1930s that captures her tracing the outline of a cow's skull. In a space adjacent to this image is "Georgia O'Keeffe," a palladium print from 1923. It is one of those iconic photos of O'Keeffe that make her seem so enigmatic and exotic -- not so different, come to think of it, from the way Curtis made those Indians look.

Muddying up the photographic waters even more is Ralph Morse, at Gallery M, which looks at the work of a giant from the Life magazine era of photojournalism. Morse saw it all, did it all and photographed it all. "You look at a history book and there's the picture of the Nazis surrendering to Eisenhower -- that's my picture," Morse says with a laugh. "You need a picture of Goring at Nuremberg, you've got to use my picture."

Morse studied at City College of New York and took his first serious photos in 1939. By 1942, he was on the staff of Life and became the youngest war correspondent in World War II. "I went on the Doolittle raid on Japan; I was at Midway," Morse says. "I was on Guadalcanal with the Marines; I went across Europe with Patton." And after the war, until Life folded in the 1970s, Morse photographed other history-making events and figures, including the early astronauts -- in particular, John Glenn -- and legendary sports stars such as Babe Ruth. (Glenn refuses to allow his images to be sold, so he is not featured in the show.)

Gallery M has some World War II images, such as the "Arc de Triomphe" and "Repatriated Frenchman," but the installation is much more slanted toward the astronauts and sports stars. "Babe Ruth in Uniform," a color print of Ruth suiting up for the last time, brings me back, again, to those Curtis photos, the ones of old chiefs resplendent in their robes, looking at us from the end of their era. Then again, the Babe's an enigmatic, exotic and iconic figure, exactly like the Georgia O'Keeffe in those Stieglitz photos. Are these Morse photos art, too?

Morse won't even consider the idea, even when the question is being posed to him in an art gallery. "I wasn't an artist; I was a journalist. I wasn't trying to make art -- I was trying to get the story," he says. "A camera's a tool, just like a pen is for a writer." However, I did cajole Morse into admitting that he had made many aesthetic decisions on the way to creating his photos. Of his own accord, he pointed out how nice it was to see his photos at Gallery M in brand-new prints taken from original negatives stored in the Time-Life archives. "They're beautiful," he says.

Regardless of Morse's and Curtis's original intentions, as their photos have aged, they've been reassessed as art. After all, they're hanging in galleries, the way art does. Still, you have to wonder what a purist like Stieglitz would think of the whole improbable mess.

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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