Not Black and White

More than any other fine-art medium, photography presents itself in myriad guises. It plays a variety of roles, depending on the context. In fact, the vast majority of photographs are not works of art at all -- not because they're badly done (well, not only that), but because they were never intended to be.

Think of snapshots. Nearly everyone has a camera, and amateur photography is one of the country's most popular hobbies. (I guess that's why the digital camera is predicted to be a top-five holiday gift this Christmas.) On the other end of the scale are scientific photographs. Some of the oldest photos from the nineteenth century were intended only to advance science, much like today's images being sent back by the Hubble telescope.

Then, of course, there's photojournalism. You know, the images that win Pulitzers because of their narrative punch. Plus, there's photography used in advertising and fashion. And don't forget pornography.

The problem with all of this subdividing is that at the end of the process, there's an object. Whether it's been made as an example of fine art, porn or anything else, the result is exactly the same: a photograph. It's not who took the photo or why; it's the photo itself that matters.

What brings this to mind is a constellation of photo shows, each illustrating a different aspect of the discussion. First up is Native View, at the Denver Public Library's Western Art Gallery, for which antique photos of American Indians were culled from the fields of ethnography and anthropology. At Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo is The Photography of Alfred Stieglitz, a magnificent solo exhibit that explores a key figure in the establishment of photography as a fine art. And, finally, another solo exhibit, Ralph Morse, at Cherry Creek's Gallery M, highlights one of photojournalism's living legends.

The Central Library's Western Art Gallery is just off the elevator lobby on the fifth floor, adjacent to the Western History department, which administers it. Senior Western History staff member Kay Wisnia organized Native View as part of her many duties at the library, and, as usual, she's done a great job. While doing research for the department, Wisnia helps people who are investigating their own Western art collections, thereby giving her easy access to both show ideas and the materials needed to put together wonderful displays. In fact, Native View primarily comprises photographs assembled by a collector who is also a Western History department habitué, Robert G. Lewis.

The show features formal portraits and documentary shots from the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries that depict the last of the Mohicans, so to speak. The oldest images in the show date from the 1850s, which is very early for photos of any kind. The portrait "Ka-ka-kel, Chief Little Crow," by Julian Vannerson, one of the official photographers for the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, shows the chief standing at ease on a floral rug (a particularly nice touch), decked out in full regalia as he leans on a draped, festooned spear. Though intended only as a document, from today's vantage, it looks closer to a painting than a ledger page. Vannerson renders Chief Little Crow not with scientific accuracy, but by artistically envisioning him as an idealized Roman soldier.

Images by Alexander Gardner and Antonio Zeno Shindler, two of Vannerson's co-workers, are also included in Native View. Shindler's "Wa-Hu-Ke-Zi-Nom-Pa," from 1867, is unforgettable. The regal chief, seated in a fussy Victorian chair, stares at the viewer. Shindler's deep focus is breathtaking. Like Vannerson, Shindler created a work of art -- even if he didn't want to.

I think that Edward S. Curtis, who began as a Seattle portrait photographer, wanted to make art even if it wasn't his primary goal. Native View includes samples from his famous twenty-volume portfolio of photogravures titled "The North American Indian," in which he aimed to capture the length and breadth of the American Indian experience. It took him from 1907 to 1930, and the resulting images are romantic photos of Native Americans that are enhanced by the sepia-colored ink used to print them for Native View. The highly detailed compositions and lighting in a Curtis photo are invariably perfect, providing viewers with a lot of insight into his subjects.

Despite the artistic flair in his works, however, Curtis was still a documentarian. It was Alfred Stieglitz who set out to push photography into the fine arts -- kicking and screaming, I might add. Yet his photos, as seen in The Photography of Alfred Stieglitz at Metro, aren't so different from those taken by Curtis.

The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York, organized this traveling exhibit, which marks the first time most of these Stieglitz photos have left the museum since being donated. Most were a gift to Eastman House by Stieglitz's more famous wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe. In 1951, O'Keeffe gave the museum more than eighty of the most important photos of Stieglitz's career, which lasted from the 1890s to the 1930s.