Not Black and White

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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.

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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