Picture This

The role of photography in contemporary art hasn't always been black and white. Although today photography is highly prized, as recently as thirty years ago, many in the art world--including the director of the Denver Art Museum--questioned whether it qualified as fine art at all.

As the story goes, the late Otto Bach, the DAM's director from 1944 through 1974, didn't think photography deserved display. While the museum very occasionally mounted photography shows--an exhibit of Edward Weston in the 1930s, for example--through the mid-'70s photographs were effectively excluded from the institution's walls.

After Bach's departure, however, things changed quickly. Lewis Story, who'd been appointed deputy director in 1969, became acting director on Bach's retirement and soon acquired the first photographs for the DAM's permanent collection. "He selected a group of Ansel Adams photographs," says Jane Fudge, assistant curator for the museum's photography division, "and Adams was so impressed with Lewis that he threw in an extra one--something that would never happen today."

In 1978, the museum created an official contemporary department that replaced an informal one headed up by artist Vance Kirkland on a volunteer basis. From the start, new contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip made her interest in photography clear: Her first acquisition for the department was a photo-based work by John Baldessari, the Los Angeles conceptualist.

By the time Ted Strauss became adjunct curator of photography in 1986, the DAM's collection already numbered in the hundreds. Strauss and his wife, Joyce, endowed the Shwayder Photography Gallery on the mezzanine (now called the second floor) that hosted contemporary exhibits. But in 1992 the Strausses retired to California, and the DAM's first and only photo space closed.

At the same time that Vanderlip and Strauss were collecting contemporary photography, museum director Lewis Sharp, who had taken over in 1988, arranged for the acquisition of a significant group of historic photos: the Daniel Wolf collection. The museum paid $1.5 million for the thousand-plus-piece collection, which includes an in-depth assortment of nineteenth-century landscapes by William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan.

So now the museum had extensive holdings of photography from before the turn of the century in addition to a contemporary collection dating back to the Seventies. In the middle, though, was a big, black hole. When Fudge, an assistant in the Modern and Contemporary department, took over as photo specialist in 1995, she faced the problem of filling that seven-decade gap. It wasn't going to be easy: The lacunae in the DAM's collection coincides with the establishment and development of the modern movement. And as New York auction catalogues reveal, modernism is as costly to acquire as are the works of the old masters.

But Fudge has taken to her difficult task enthusiastically, as demonstrated by Between Two Wars and Beyond, a show of early- to mid-twentieth-century photography currently featured in the Laura and David Merage Gallery. (Laura Merage, a contemporary photographer whose own work is now on display at the Carol Keller Gallery, and husband David endowed their namesake gallery, which opened last year in the first-floor Stanton wing, with $60,000 earmarked for offsetting the cost of displaying photography rather than for acquisitions.)

Between Two Wars and Beyond begins with a ten-piece suite titled "Electricite," by vanguard artist Man Ray. Born in Philadelphia, Man Ray spent much of his career in Paris, where he did painting and sculpture in addition to his work in experimental photography. In 1922 he created his first "rayograms" (today called "photograms") by positioning three-dimensional objects onto photo-sensitive paper. In the resulting images, the ghostly forms of the objects stand out against a rich, dark background.

Technically, the Man Rays on display here are not rayograms, but rather hand-pulled photogravure duplicates. "lectricite" was commissioned in 1931 by a Parisian utility, La Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d'lectricite, which ordered an edition of 500 sets of ten as gifts for its preferred customers. For the suite's pieces, Man Ray took everyday objects and placed them within a modernist composition. In "Salle à Manger," for example, the side of a toaster is set on the diagonal with its cord in an arching loop above. The toaster and the cord are rendered in various shades of white and gray on a background field of saturated black. For "Le Souffle," the image of an electric fan is overlaid with radiating lines suggestive of the breeze the device generates.

"Cuisine" adds a photo-montage element to this combination of an actual object with an abstract one, setting a photo of a roasted duck on a platter in the center of the rayogram background of spiraling heating coils. The absurdist "Le Monde" also joins a photograph with a rayogram: In the foreground of the piece is the rayogram, a light switch on an electric cord; the background is filled with a photo of the moon. The preposterous, somewhat humorous implication is that electricity lights the moon.

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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