That Pioneering Spirit

Photography's fortunes are soaring right now -- not only in Colorado, where photography shows are cropping up left and right -- but in the New York-based art magazines, too. The shutter craze has been coming on for a couple of decades, but in the current season, photography is taking an increasingly prominent place in contemporary art, rivaling not just sculpture, but -- dare I say it? -- even painting.

Throughout the many years I've been paying attention to the art scene, I don't remember a time when so many photo shows have been presented. This past summer, the Denver Art Museum hosted both the fabulous Hallmark Collection and the blockbuster Retrospectacle, which is still on display. The latter includes photos and photo-based works in the main part on the first floor, as well as a separate photos-only show on the seventh floor (currently closed for change-out).

Major photo shows have been presented this season at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museo de las Américas, and the Singer, Rule, and Judish galleries, to mention a few. Plus, there's a burgeoning scene of galleries that are exclusively devoted to photography, most notably Camera Obscura. And last, but hardly least, there's the venerable old Colorado Photographic Arts Center, which is celebrating forty years of promoting fine-art photography in Denver.

When CPAC was founded in 1963, photography was still struggling for recognition. The organization was created to counteract the then-dominant prejudice against photography, and, in particular, the anti-photography mood at the DAM. "[DAM director] Otto Bach didn't think photographs were works of art," says Skip Kohloff, longtime CPAC president. "And the museum wouldn't exhibit them."

The founders included a group of local photographers and photo enthusiasts, such as Eugene Lang, Jim Milmoe, Glen Thrush and Hal Gould. Within a few months, membership increased to over a hundred. At the same time, a permanent collection was started, with gifts from prominent photographers such as Yousef Karsh, Phillippe Halsman and Ansel Adams.

The next year, Gould headed up an exhibition committee that opened CPAC's first gallery space at 1503 East Colfax Avenue; it debuted in 1965 with a Takutaro Tanaka show. The center continued to present exhibits until it lost its lease, two and a half years later. For the next five years, shows were organized in banks, libraries and other ad hoc exhibition spaces. Finally, in 1972, CPAC moved into the space at 1301 Bannock Street, right behind the Denver Art Museum -- the same building where Camera Obscura is now. (In a sense, Camera Obscura is a spinoff of CPAC: It was opened in the '70s by Gould, and became one of the first commercial galleries in the country to focus on photography.)

The center remained on Bannock Street for the next ten years, but in 1982 it was homeless again, and again presented shows in venues around town, including a series of major exhibits at the University of Denver during the 1990s. Five years ago, CPAC found a new home at 1513 Boulder Street.

Looking back over forty years of history, CPAC president Kohloff ticks off the triumphs and tragedies, including the repeated financial troubles that led at one point to the sale of some of the center's permanent collection.

Things are better now, and Kohloff's in a celebratory spirit. "We wanted to kick off our fortieth anniversary with something special," he says. And CPAC's done just that with Betty Hahn, a retrospective examining the innovative work of the renowned New Mexico photographer.

Born Elizabeth Okon in Chicago in 1940, Hahn grew up in Indiana. She was a precocious artist, and at the age of ten had one of her drawings published in Children's Playmate Magazine. She attended the University of Indiana, where photographer Henry Holmes Smith became her mentor. She served as Smith's assistant, completing her MFA in 1966. The following year she moved to Rochester, New York -- a very photo-friendly town because Kodak and Eastman House are both there.

While at a reception at Eastman House, Hahn met Lee Witkin, owner of the Witkin Gallery in Manhattan. The meeting led to her first New York show in 1973, and thus to a measure of fame. In 1976 she was hired to teach photography at the University of New Mexico, where she taught until her retirement in 1997.

Hahn's accomplishments are legion. She was among the first serious photographers to rediscover "lost" processes from the nineteenth century, to use a primitive camera and to add stitching and drawing to her photos. I don't need to tell you that all of these things are ubiquitous features of experimental photography today -- but Hahn started doing them in the 1960s and '70s, before many of today's practitioners were even born.

Hahn's experiments are based on pop art, with her early images pulling pop-art paintings inside out. Pop artists like Andy Warhol were using photography as an important part of their paintings. In response, Hahn did exactly the opposite: She took painterly features and incorporated them into her photos.

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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