Flash Back

Over the past ten years, the city's galleries, art centers and museums have done a number of exhibits charting out the region's art history -- a scholarly and aesthetic pursuit that's still in its infancy. Most of these shows have spotlighted vintage paintings and, to a lesser extent, prints and ceramics. One topic, however, has been given short shrift: the history of local photography, which is something that almost no one knows anything about. I know I don't.

Here's my entire storehouse of knowledge on the matter: I know the work of Colonel William Henry Jackson, William Pennington, Laura Gilpin, Myron Wood and Robert Adams. That's it. I've barely even heard of most of the artists whose works appear in Early Colorado Contemporary Photography, currently at Gallery Sink in Highland.

Truthfully, only one of them is well known, and that's James Milmoe, who is the primary force behind this exhibit. Milmoe earned his living as a commercial photographer, but he also moonlighted as a fine artist. His fifty-year career in the area has been distinguished, with numerous photos being published and various art institutions, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, acquiring his works.

For the show at Sink, Milmoe includes his own work along with that of five of his contemporaries: Walter Chappell, Arnold Gassan, Syl Labrot, Nile Root and Winter Prather. This loosely associated group of kindred modernists worked in town in the '50s and '60s. Most participated in workshops conducted by legendary photographer Minor White, who encouraged experimentation, and all of them explored vanguard ideas in fine-art photography.

The names of these photographers are unfamiliar because there is a lack of institutional support for exploring Colorado's twentieth-century art history. Though there are credible collections of paintings from the period, most notably at the Kirkland Museum, there just aren't any caches of modernist photos by local artists. In fact, most of Early Contemporary Colorado Photography came out of Milmoe's private collection, which he has assembled over the years with his wife, Marilynn. Milmoe sought out some loans to beef up the exhibit, but the idiosyncrasies of a personal collection still show through, as some photographers are seen in depth while others are barely sketched out.

As expected, there's a horde of Milmoes, and his section starts off the show. The prominent, up-front placement might seem egocentric, but it was gallery director Mark Sink and Fort Collins-based curator Jack Curfman who made that call. And anyway, the front-porch-like space at Sink is terrible, so it's hardly the plum spot it could be.

Milmoe was predominantly interested in finding abstracts in the real world: There are blown-up close-ups of flaking surfaces, marred plywood sheets and piles of debris. In some, he left the image unaltered, producing detailed shots, while in others he monkeyed around with the prints in the darkroom, adding and removing things to clarify his chosen imagery.

Among the photos of the first type -- everyday things straightforwardly shot and made abstract through cropping -- are "Peeled Silver Paint" and the very similar "Poster Wall." In each, a cluster of curling planes becomes a vaguely surrealist vignette. In "Circle Study," Milmoe shot a scrap of wood that had been used as a guard beneath a drill press. The wood is covered with circles formed by the different bits, creating a random, lyrical pattern.

There are also a number of altered photos that resemble abstract-expressionist prints, such as "Space Warp," a black-and-white composition of junk accumulated under a pier. The saturated black elements are gorgeous. This piece was actually displayed at the Denver Art Museum in the 1950s, making it the first photo since the 1930s to have gotten through the institution's door, because longtime DAM director Otto Bach didn't consider the medium a legitimate art form. How times have changed: Photography and photo-based mediums are arguably the leading forms of the art of our time.

The side gallery holds a small selection of photos by Walter Chappell. Most of Chappell's early work -- negatives and all -- was destroyed in a studio fire in 1961, so the surviving early images are very valuable. The show includes a dozen pieces by him, all but two of which are for sale at Sink. In the '50s, Chappell did a stint at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona before coming to Denver. He left our area a few years later, however, to be curator at the George Eastman House in New York. He spent most of his later years in New Mexico.

Chappell's taking-off point was nature photography, but he gives the venerable tradition several twists. In "Untitled (Reeds and Sun)," a close-up of a stand of reeds, the actual plants are hard to distinguish from their reflected images on the water, making the piece appear more abstract than it is. In two later Chappells, leaves are backlit so that smallish blips of bright white follow their contours.