Scenic Overlook

All this week, the Community College of Denver on the Auraria campus has been hosting a national conference on photography titled "Photography and the Creative Process." Free and open to the public, the conference was organized by renowned local photographer Ron Wohlauer, who has taught photography at CCD since 1975. In conjunction with the conference, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center and the adjacent Carol Keller Gallery are hosting an exhibit, also titled Photography and the Creative Process, that features the work of conference presenters.

Planning for the conference began informally in the summer of 1998 "as a modest idea," recalls Wohlauer. "Initially, I wanted to bring David Bayles to Denver to talk."

Bayles, an Oregon-based photographer and conservationist, is Wohlauer's old pal. The two originally became friends as undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1960s. Both were already interested in photography. "We met at the film counter of Jones Drug and Camera," says Wohlauer.

After graduation, Wohlauer left for graduate school at Cambridge University in England, and Bayles attended UCLA. In the early 1970s, their paths crossed again when they both wound up at the University of Oregon. Wohlauer returned to Colorado soon after, however, while Bayles remained in Oregon. But the two photographers had forged a lifelong friendship based on their shared interest in classic forms, specifically the landscape and the nude.

Lining up Bayles was easy, so Wohlauer decided to expand his idea into a full-blown week-long conference. "I came up with the idea for the conference because I didn't know at the time how hard it was to do something like this," he says. Other out-of-town luminaries participating in the conference include Kim Weston of California, representing the third generation of the Weston photo dynasty (his uncle is Brett Weston, and his grandfather is the late Edward Weston); Willie Osterman, from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York; and John Schaefer, a former president of the University of Arizona who was among the founders of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

Wohlauer would like to make the conference a biannual event, but only if he gets some help. "I've made every phone call and all the arrangements," he says with a mixture of exhaustion and pride. Aside from organizing the entire thing by himself, Wohlauer was able to pull it off with a shoestring budget of $5,000. "CCD is a wonderful vehicle for an event of this sort. The conference is being held at St. Cajetan's, which is very expensive to rent, especially for an entire week," he says. "But since the conference is also a credit course at CCD, we were able to use St. Cajetan's for free."

The topic of the conference is the role of creativity in fine-art photography and, by implication, the separate issue of technical mastery. But the real reason behind the conference was Wohlauer's interest in creating "some kind of focus for the photo community in Denver. There's not a lot that unifies the community, and the conference highlights the fact that there are some really good people working in this geographic area," he points out. "I wanted to utilize the great resources that are here."

Wohlauer notes that the local photo scene, as good as it is, is little known to the general public; he calls it "a well-kept secret," and he's right. Several of the photographers participating in the conference will be new to many people, since they rarely exhibit their work, but Wohlauer hopes the event will get the word out about them.

The accompanying exhibit goes a long way in accomplishing his goal.

The CPAC and the Carol Keller Gallery share a converted garage in the Highland neighborhood. Visitors enter the CPAC first, with access to the Keller Gallery just off the center's south gallery. The show starts off with the work of Scott Engle, the chairman of the fine-art department at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton. His three large color photos feature shredded images laid one over another. In the wonderful Decompose 2412a-98 #43, Engle has crowded the photo with image fragments, but one feature stands out: the face of a smiling man in the upper left corner.

To the right are a pair of large black-and-white portraits by Gary Lynch. Essentially silhouettes, the two photos, Crooked Arrow and Gemini (Female) are almost entirely a rich, deep black. The only light Lynch uses is along the profiles of the single face seen in each. Lynch currently teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver.

On the long wall facing the front door are two photo-based pieces by Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff, Fields of Memory #1 and Fields of Memory #2. Both join found images from the turn of the century with pressed flowers and leaves. For each piece, Kohloff has lined up three separately framed color snapshots of flowers. Above each group she has placed a found image of a woman on an oval-shaped embroidery frame. In these pieces, Kohloff is linking some interests related to Victorian-era women -- photography, pressing flowers and needlework. Kohloff has taught the history of photography at UCD for more than twenty years. She is also the coordinator for the CPAC's gallery.

Her husband, Skip Kohloff, is the center's longtime president. Along with co-hosting the exhibit, the CPAC is a sponsor of the conference as well.

Down from Kohloff's pieces are two stunning black-and-white landscapes by Ray Whiting, Evening Storm, Needles, Utah and Mount Farfield, Colorado. Both are classic examples of landscape photography in the California tradition. The scenes are imbued with drama; the shades range from the blackest black to the whitest white. Whiting has taught photography at CCD since 1976.

Also fairly traditional -- except that he uses color -- are the landscapes of respected local photographer Eric Paddock. Two of these, Sioux County, Nebraska and Sundown Near Keota, Colorado, are suggestive of paintings because of their murky atmospheres. The third photo, Aurora, Colorado, is quite different, since the subject is the scarred earth being torn up by heavy equipment. Paddock heads the photography department at the Colorado History Museum.

Up the ramp, in the south gallery, are Weston's and Bayles's photos. Bayles is represented by two erotic female nudes, both in black and white and both untitled. The theatrical lighting and the partial costumes worn by the models lend the images a contemporary, almost fetishistic quality -- but they're too edgy to be pinups. Weston also includes an untitled black-and-white nude, but his approach is to convey a sense of lyrical innocence: This nude is seated in the middle of a plant. His other untitled black-and-white photo focuses on a bouquet of calla lilies being held in a woman's arms.

Nearby are three exquisite black-and-white photos by Wohlauer himself. Two are signature landscape pieces, but one is not what we'd expect. In Tub in Field, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, 1997, Wohlauer takes in the magnificent landscape, but he draws our attention both visually and by his title to the trash-strewn meadow in the foreground. A more pristine scene is captured in Standing Stones, Callainish, Scotland, 1997, in which the monoliths are theatrically lit against a leaden sky. The odd Wohlauer photo is of the rear end of an old English compact car in Morris Minor, Scotland, 1997.

At this point the exhibit continues into the Carol Keller Gallery. On either side of the doorway are small color photos by Kenn Bisio, chairman of the journalism department at Metropolitan State College and a photojournalist for more than 25 years. Wall, Kilkenny, Ireland is an almost completely abstract close-up of a multi-colored wall. Leningrad, which shows an elderly woman walking by a brightly painted brothel entrance, is more in line with Bisio's profession.

William Sutton, who teaches photography at Regis University, explores ecological issues in two pairs of black-and-white photos that examine a natural disaster, the Black Tiger Gulch fire of 1989. Sutton took photos of the charred gulch right after the fire, then took new shots from the same vantage points earlier this year.

Near the Suttons are a trio of photos by one of the biggest names in the show, Bernard Mendoza. Though locally based, Mendoza has pursued an international career as a commercial photographer. He uses a documentary style applied to both public and private moments. In Nation of Islam Speaks, looming guards at a rally in the foreground dominate and frame the podium in the background. In Ann Von Teitzer-Wallace, an elderly woman in evening dress is seen standing next to her bed in her austere nursing-home room.

This conference and its companion exhibit provide viewers with a wonderful and rare chance to see the work of a wide variety of worthwhile fine-art photographers, most of whom work in and around town. The opportunity is a fleeting one, since the conference ends tomorrow -- but there's still time to see the show, which closes this weekend.

On the other side of town, in Cherry Creek, Gallery M is presenting Tone Poems: Portraits of American Jazz by Ted Williams. Williams, who became a professional photojournalist in the late 1940s, did commissions for the magazines Look, Ebony, Time, Newsweek, Down Beat and -- here's the kicker -- Playboy. And it is the fine-art division of Playboy (did you known they had one?) that has recently issued these brand-new prints of his work.

Williams was born in Texas in 1925 and became interested in photography as a child. "My mother was a photography freak," he said while in town for the show's opening last month. "She bought me my own camera when I was eight or nine. I think she did it so I'd keep my hands off hers." That first camera was "a little plastic job, like a Brownie," he adds. "It was called a Uniflex." After a stint in the Coast Guard during World War II, Williams moved to Chicago to study photography at the Institute of Design in 1952. The Institute was the American heir to the Bauhaus, which had relocated from Germany after the famous art school was closed by the Nazis. Williams, who is African-American, noted that at the time, the Institute of Design was racially integrated. Asked if he faced discrimination, Williams says, "Not there. They were from the Bauhaus, which the Nazis closed -- they weren't going to have none of that."

At the Institute, Williams studied with the late Aaron Siskind and other famous faculty members, including Buckminster Fuller and Harry Callahan. In the mid-1950s, the school became a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which had just been created.

Even before he entered the Institute of Design, Williams was selling his photographs of jazz musicians. He received his first professional commission in 1947, when he sold some shots to the Chicago-based music magazine Down Beat. For the next decade, he "sold a print now and then," as he said, but his first big break came in 1957, when Down Beat editor Jack Tracy hired him to cover the Newport Jazz Festival. Tracy loved the photos and devoted nearly thirty pages to them in Down Beat's first annual, done at the end of the year.

It was then that Playboy -- which is also based in Chicago -- became aware of him. Despite his connection to the nation's preeminent girlie magazine, Williams did not make cheesecake shots. Instead he continued his specialty: celebrity portraits. For decades, Williams took candid shots of jazz musicians at work around the world for Playboy, literally recording the history of jazz. The show at Gallery M includes dozens of these, including an incredible Count Basie (Upstairs at the Blue Note).

Mryna Hayutin, director of Gallery M, plans to bring more Playboy photographers to Denver in the future. In fact, she has already installed a smattering of photos of the magazine's signature Playmates at the gallery. However, Hayutin felt, correctly, that for this introductory show, Williams's luxurious jazz photos might have a wider audience.

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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