Photography is a complicated topic from the perspective of the fine arts. There are so many different types of photography -- scientific, documentary, fashion, advertising, experimental -- all of which may or may not qualify as fine art. Not only that, but the very nature of the medium is difficult to define, presenting viewers and scholars with more questions than answers. For instance, are films a kind of photography? Are videos? DVDs? Are paintings and prints made with photographic methods photography, too? And most important, how do all of these photo-based art forms relate back to good old-fashioned "straight" photography?

In Retrospectacle, curator Dianne Vanderlip, founder and head of the modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum, addresses most of these issues head on. But she sidesteps the question of "straight" photography's place, treating the medium as part of, yet distinct from, the rest of the art world (but more about that later).

Because all photographs are mechanically produced -- as opposed to being handmade, like paintings -- even the oldest ones fall within the boundaries of the modern movement. That puts all photographic work at the DAM under the domain of the modern and contemporary department. And that's why Vanderlip has made photos a key component of her 25th-anniversary celebration, which showcases the impressive collection of modern and contemporary art that she has pulled together during her years at the museum.

When Vanderlip was hired, in 1978, the museum had only a handful of photos in its permanent collection, because DAM director Otto Bach, who ran the place with an iron fist between 1944 and 1974, did not consider photography a fine art. Lewis Story, the DAM's fondly remembered assistant director, immediately took advantage of Bach's departure, purchasing a suite of Ansel Adams images -- the DAM's first photographic acquisition since World War II. By the time Vanderlip joined the staff, the situation had changed radically, allowing her first acquisition to be a photo-based piece by conceptual artist John Baldessari. Since then, the collection has grown relentlessly and now includes some 4,500 photographic images.

The Baldessari is on display in the main section of Retrospectacle (reviewed November 21, 2002), in the Stanton Galleries on the ground floor, which is where the paintings, sculptures, installations and most of the photo-based pieces are being presented. But Retrospectacle also includes a separate show in the Merage Gallery on the seventh floor, in which Vanderlip showcases the "straight" photographs from the collection. (See, I told you she sidestepped that particular curatorial problem.)

It's a real pity that the Merage is so far from the Stanton -- literally, the rest of the museum lies between the two spaces -- because although huge crowds are mobbing the main part of Retrospectacle, relatively few are finding their way to the photo section upstairs.

In the Merage, Vanderlip throws us a curve right off the bat, immediately questioning the nature of photography. At the start of the show is a monitor playing Bruce Nauman's Setting a Good Corner, an hour-long digital video from 1999 showing Nauman building a fence on his New Mexico ranch.

I like Vanderlip's connection of traditional photography with the latest photographic technology, but there's a real problem with the Nauman: the incessant buzz of his chain saw on the sound track. The horrible noise fills the Merage and intrudes on the entire show. I wish the DAM had put in earphones for those who are interested and spared the rest of us the annoying din -- or just turned the darn thing off completely. I said as much to the museum's Blake Milteer, with whom I walked through the photo show last week. Milteer acknowledged my point, saying, "The sound of videos and DVDs is something we need to deal with. We're trying different things."

Officially, Milteer is a special-projects assistant, but unofficially, he's the modern and contemporary department's photo specialist. The unofficial gig fell into his lap just a few months ago, when John Pultz resigned as photo curator. Pultz was in on the very early stages, but after his departure, Milteer took the reins and selected pieces for Retrospectacle's photo section with Vanderlip.

Despite the noise, the Nauman exemplifies one of the main themes of the show: photography in the West. "The Nauman is one of many things in the collection by contemporary artists from the region, and the department has collected photos by Western photographers all along," Milteer explains. "Also, with the acquisition of the Wolf Collection ten years ago, the museum acquired a thousand images of the West."

Milteer is referring to the early Western photos assembled by Daniel Wolf, which were purchased in 1988 for what was then the outrageous sum of $1.5 million. The photos Wolf collected are remarkable both for their high quality and for their remarkable state of conservation. This bold move was made by DAM director Lewis Sharp; though controversial at the time, today it is regarded as visionary, and the collection's market value has soared.

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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