Split Seconds

As the 21st century gets under way, it seems more and more apparent that the quintessential art form of the era is photography -- straightforward shots of exterior reality, photo-based methods (such as films, projections and videos) or the more conventional application of photographic technology in prints and paintings. I think this is why older photos, especially those done in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, can still look so contemporary.

There are tons of photo shows out there right now, even with the Colorado Photographic Arts Center having shut down its venue. There's no way I can do justice to all of them, but here are three worthwhile recommendations: a solo at Gallery Roach made up of mid-twentieth-century images by a legend in Colorado photography; a solo at Gallery M by a New York photographer and photo editor who's still working but came to fame in the late twentieth century; and a solo at Walker Fine Art by a Boulder-based experimental photo artist who's doing important works now. Taken together, the efforts of these three very different photographers allow Denver exhibition-goers a quick and jaunty march through the past sixty years of the medium's history.

Otto Roach was Denver's premier commercial photographer from the '30s to the '60s. He specialized in aerial photography and also opened a photo lab in 1936, producing high-quality analogue prints and photo murals. The lab, called Roach Photo, is still around and is located just south of downtown on Broadway. In 1953, Roach took on an apprentice, Dutch Walla, who became a partner, then a brother-in-law, and, eventually, the owner of the business.

A few years ago, Walla opened a gallery on the premises called Gallery Roach. Currently in that space is The Wyoming Expeditions, which highlights photos Roach took of the dramatic landscapes in our neighboring state. Walla selected the Roach photos and laid out the show, which is spare, elegant and almost as formal as a tuxedo, with the blacks and grays of the photos standing out against the dead-white walls.

The Wyoming photos were shot between 1945 and 1961, but most of the prints are much more recently minted. One exception is the vintage "Grand Teton Range, Jackson Lake," from 1950, a breathtaking photo mural facing the entrance. The majestic scene unfolds before us with a screen of evergreens in the extreme foreground, the mirror-flat surface of a lake in the mid-ground, and white-capped peaks and clouds in the background.

At first glance, "Grand Teton Range" looks like a regular color photo, but it isn't; it's an expertly hand-tinted black-and-white print. In the 1970s, Roach's wife, Kitty, did the trees, lake and mountains, and Dutch Walla -- Kitty's brother and Roach's partner -- did the sky. This hand-coloring is meticulously executed and absolutely gorgeous.

Except for "Grand Teton Range," all of the photos in the show are black-and-white pieces done as gelatin silver prints. Many are iconic views that were made famous by early painters and photographers working in the West during the pioneer days. Roach was obviously fluent in the tradition, because every photo is so good that it's really hard to key in on any standouts. There are several views of the Tetons, including "Teton Mountains -- Rail Fence," from 1948, and a number of Yellowstone images, including "Yellowstone Park, Jupiter Terrace," from 1950.

When you visit The Wyoming Expeditions, be sure to pick up the new "Denver Backward & Forward" calendar, which features lots of interesting shots of old Denver, many of which were done by Roach. The calendar, published by NSO Press, is priced at a modest $15, with the proceeds going to Historic Denver, the city's venerable preservation group. It would make a wonderful -- and inexpensive -- gift for just about anybody.

One of the specialties of Gallery M in Cherry Creek North is selling the work of famous photographers, in particular those who were associated with LIFE magazine during its golden age. LIFE wasn't always the throwaway newspaper supplement it is today; it used to be one of the most important photography publications in the world. In the 1930s and 1940s, LIFE assembled a staff of photographers who would become famous figures, including the likes of Margaret Bourke-White and Carl Mydans.

The current Gallery M exhibit, John Loengard, focuses on yet another LIFE photographer. Loengard, who's in his seventies and still lives in New York, joined the staff of the famous periodical in 1961 -- later than the original group -- and eventually became one of its photo editors.

The earliest pieces at Gallery M are perfect examples of what could be called "the LIFE-style." This is especially true of the celebrity shots, such as 1964's "The Beatles, Miami Beach," which depicts the heads of the Fab Four bobbing in the water of a swimming pool. It's a classic, as is the shot of Marilyn Monroe. Even some of the later photos, such as "Cadets at Duntroon, Canberra, Australia," from 1981, have a real LIFE-ish character.

Beginning in the '80s and continuing to the present, Loengard has photographed other photographers. He has captured some in traditional settings, such as Richard Avedon in his studio, while others are seen plying their craft, as in the image of Annie Leibovitz and two assistants setting up a shot from the dizzying height of the roof of the Chrysler Building. Negatives are also of interest to Loengard. In one photo, Alfred Eisenstaedt is captured as he examines a negative; in another, Sebastio Salgado holds one of his.

Only two walls of one room at Gallery M are devoted to John Loengard, but there's still plenty in it worth seeing.

Well-known Boulder-based photographer Bonny Lhotka took over the walls at the front of Walker Fine Art for Illusions, now on display there. Lhotka is an expert in the medium, having experimented with computer-aided art since the early '90s. She is the co-author of a book on the topic, Digital Art Studio (published by Watson-Guptill) and was a co-organizer of the Digital Atelier at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, where she was an artist in residence.

The photo-based pieces in Illusions were all done with UV flatbed printers, which are most often employed for commercial applications as opposed to fine art. The flatbeds have a number of unique attributes that make them interesting to artists, and Lhotka first began experimenting with them in 1999. Being flat, the printers will accommodate large panels, and the UV-cured inks have a physical presence reminiscent of paint, standing up off the surface instead of merging with it, like the inks used in inkjet printers. Also, the flatbeds will print on anything, not just paper, allowing Lhotka to place her images on various materials. The use of the different base materials for the prints affects the way they look, and thus play a big part in the visual power of Lhotka's pieces.

Aluminum is a material that Lhotka has been experimenting with, as evidenced in "Mystic Pond" and "Mystic," which both depict the same tree. In "Mystic Pond," however, the image is inverted, because it's a reflection of the tree in the water. The dark, somewhat-metallic inks combined with the dull sheen of the aluminum -- which Lhotka allows to show through in places -- give these pieces an iridescent quality, as if they have an internal glow.

The opposite effect is shown off in "Bay Side," which is printed on Baltic birch wood. In this case, the dark inks and the surface of the wood absorb, rather than reflect, the ambient light.

A few of these pieces were created using an interesting method, whereby Lhotka etches on both sides of a transparent acrylic panel and then lays it on top of a mixed-media painting. One example is "Civic Center," which has an inverted reflection of trees in water across the middle, framed by shadows of temporary fences cast on sidewalks. Interestingly, the fences themselves have been cropped out and are not part of the dense imagery assembled for the piece.

Of all the Lhotkas at Walker, surely the strongest is the quartet of striking light-boxes that depict schools of exotic Japanese koi in a pond. "Spotted Fish," "Blue Waters," "Black Pond" and "Yellow Fish" have all been done as 3-D lenticular animation photos. With this method, the imagery shifts and changes as the viewer moves around the piece, creating an illusion of extreme depth, as though the pieces were several feet thick instead of only inches deep. In these digital-photo-based works, Lhotka used a series of mechanically generated straight lines that follow the four edges of the light-boxes. The lines intersect to form a square in the middle of each, which is where the 3-D effect is employed.

Not everything in this show or in the accompanying catalogue worked for me. The abstracts with geometric elements that are smaller in size than the other works looked a little too decorative -- and a little dated, too. But most of the pieces -- especially those based on the images of trees, water and fish -- were very successful. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Illusions one of the strongest photo shows I've seen this year.

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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