Three photo shows remind us what art is

It's hard to believe that twenty years ago, many people felt photography wasn't an art form, especially since it would be easy to argue that today it's the preeminent one. This naysaying of the past was partly the product of the medium's mechanical aspect: Many people had the naïve view that art needed to be handmade and that using a camera violated that dictum. How medieval from the perspective of our digital age.

Critics also felt that many photos — such as those pertaining to journalism, sports, fashion and even pornography — were more like documents than art. But now it's obvious that artists can use cameras. It's also apparent that some of those non-art types of images have been drafted into the fine-arts category by the radical change in perspective that has rewritten the rules of the art world. This rise in photography's position is evidenced by the many artists who use it and the many shows they present. Unfortunately, space constraints prevent me from doing any more than sketching out a few of the photo exhibits currently around town, but I do want to focus on three of the most interesting.

First up is John Davenport: Nothing More Than Something Beautiful, at Edge Gallery. A Colorado native who studied at the University of Colorado at Denver, Davenport is a longtime photographer and a member of the Edge co-op. His signature is the diptych, in which two separate images are printed together to create a single work.

Davenport's title is revealing, especially the word "nothing," because these works don't have much in common. They survey a range of subjects and display a variety of different looks; most are black and white, though some are brown and white, and others are in vivid color. There are still-life pairings and still-life scenes paired with figures. Some are put together with nearly identical shots, while others have two disparate images. The most heterogeneous are those that combine newly photographed images with found vintage ones.

One of the more interesting aspects of Davenport's oeuvre is his technique. While photography has been almost completely taken over by digital technology, Davenport sticks with analog methods, using cameras that take film and printing the photos traditionally, with silver and Van Dyke brown. For his day job, he prints photos of this type for Roach Photos, a pioneer Denver outfit that specializes in creating photo murals the old-fashioned way — by developing them from film. After looking closely at the Davenport photos at Edge, it's hard to deny that the tried-and-true approach has its strengths — in particular, the incredible range of grays that blend smoothly over the surfaces of the pictures with none of the choppiness that can sometimes be associated with computer-aided techniques.

It's hard to say what the Davenport photos mean, even those that give the viewer clues, like "Milk Money," in which the subject is a group of milk bottles filled with money, or "Intangible," wherein a shot of an apple pie is compared to one depicting its unassembled ingredients. All in all, they're fairly enigmatic, which, of course, brings me to Jimmy Sellars: Enigmas, at Sellars Project Space.

Sellars the man runs Sellars the space, so it might be tempting to regard this gallery as a vanity operation, but that's not true, because Sellars himself is just one of a number of artists who show their work there. Sellars has a BFA from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and though he has made paintings and sculptures, for many years he's been best known for his photos. These narrative shots in pigmented inkjet prints on canvas have a peculiar quality, because Sellars employs some very strange models to make them: G. I. Joe action figures. The G. I. Joes are posed to illustrate various situations, and over the years they have been called into service not only to make war, but to make love, as well. The idea is simple, and it really works: At first glance, the photos seem like real portraits of real people.

In the past, Sellars has placed the G.I. Joes in settings that could almost be described as cinematic, and in that way laid out the suggestion of an epic tale unfolding behind them. The Enigmas works have a more intimate and psychological feeling that seems appropriate, especially considering the more descriptive name given to the series they're from: "Enigmas and Ambiguities." For these photos, Sellars has chosen to take close-up portraits dominated by the handsome faces of the G.I. Joes. It could be said that they are staring straight into the camera — that is, if we weren't talking about inanimate objects.

The Sellars Project Space is spiffy and fairly small, yet big enough to house a coherent show like this one. (Sellars's work also looked remarkable in the enormous spaces at the Arvada Center when it was presented there a few years ago.) Sellars has a good eye when it comes to installation, and the exhibit is perfectly arranged. Since the photos are so closely associated with one another, there is a marvelous sense of consistency. But Sellars has jacked up the evenness quotient by presenting everything in painted white frames, giving it a retro, high-style character. The overall experience knocked me out.

And while I'm on the topic of drop-dead-beautiful shows, I need to mention Halim Alkarim: The Witness Archive, at Robischon Gallery. The work on view had so much power that I involuntarily gasped when I walked into the place. I've been aware of Alkarim for several years; before this show, however, I thought of him not as a photographer, but rather as an artist who uses abstract forms to lay out ethnographic conceptual installations that refer to his native Iraq. These photos also have Iraqi content, but they otherwise seem completely disconnected from his earlier pieces, almost as though an entirely different artist had done them.

Alkarim has faced his share of political adversity related to his life in Iraq. His father was a critic of the Saddam Hussein regime, and his family suffered for it. During the first Gulf War, Alkarim himself resisted serving in the military by hiding out in the desert for several years. But despite these difficulties, he had a lifelong interest in art and studied at the Baghdad Academy of the Fine Arts and later at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, in Amsterdam. He now lives permanently in Colorado.

Even on close examination, it's not clear that the lambda prints on aluminum that make up The Witness Archive are even photographs; in many ways, they look more like animation drawings. There are a few reasons for this. First, Alkarim puts the models in elaborate special-effects makeup, including latex masks. Secondly, he shoots them through a fabric scrim, which further alters their appearance. And finally, he retouches the resulting images using computer programs.

One of the first things viewers will notice is how all these efforts are about the heightened attention Alkarim directs toward the eyes of the sitters. This has to do with the content with which he wishes to imbue the photos. Thinking about the role of the veil in Islamic culture, Alkarim noticed that while it obscured parts of women's faces, it also made their eyes more important. And his latex masks and retouched eyes do the same thing. Anxiety and a sense of knowing are being conveyed by the wide-eyed expressions on the faces of his models.

Robischon can always be counted on to present great shows, and this one surely ranks among the best in memory.