Denver Bar Association
September 2002
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Dry Plate to Digital: Hallmark Photo Collection

by Greg Rawlings

Denver Art Museum’s ‘An American Century of Photography’ through Sept. 29.


There is very little in the realm of art, especially modern art, as gratifying as gazing at a great photograph. The immediacy, the sensuality, the infinite variety of blacks, whites and grays—it can be a shocking, wonderful thing, an aesthetic experience of the highest order. The exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) is rife with such moments; it is a veritable cornucopia of them.

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait,
1933, by Alfred Stieglitz.

Seldom in my years in Denver has the DAM put on as excellent a show as the present "An American Century of Photography." Culled from the enormous and meticulously chosen collection of Hallmark (yes, that Hallmark), it provides us with a glorious overview of the history of photography, the only art form as modern as jazz. Also by focusing on America, with photos either by Americans or of American scenes, the show has a narrow enough context that it never confuses.

Highlights of this show are many, and lowlights are few; but first an aside on, well, low lights. For the first part of the show, in the rooms dealing primarily with the first quarter of a century after photography became a viable art form, the lights are set so dim that many of the remarkable photographs are a strain to see well. This is a shame, and something I’ve never seen on such a level in a major museum (and I’ve perused photo collections in a great many). The DAM would do well to turn up the illumination a notch.

In that the lighting in the early rooms is my only real qualm with the exhibit, I can now turn to the many highlights.

Babe Ruth, Yankee Stadium,
June 13, 1948, by Nat Fein.

But where to start? With the astounding Lewis Hine’s, "Albanian Woman with Folded Head Cloth, Ellis Island," from 1905; or maybe the crowd-pleasing pop culture selections, like Nat Fein’s classic shot of Babe Ruth’s final appearance at Yankee Stadium, in 1948; or lush fashion shots by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon; or perhaps the flashbulb and gutter world of Weegee; or, my favorites—and a true exception to my usual loathing of color photographs and color films—two perfect pieces by Mississippi master William Eggleston. Any show where the Egglestons could exist side by side with the muted wonder of Robert Adams is a show to see.

Another delight, selections from Robert Frank’s "The Americans," the first photographic documentary I ever purchased, and the gripping cover shot, "Billy Mann, Tulsa," from Larry Clark’s deeply influential "Tulsa."

Camera Obscura Image of Manhattan,
View Looking South in Large Room,
1996, by Abelardo Morell.

There is not a room in this exhibit that will not amaze you, and amaze you repeatedly, at that.

Only near the end, when modern solipsists such as Cindy Sherman, the most over-praised (and over-priced) artist in modern America, fill the walls, does the show seem to droop. There are also the usual Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe signature works (the Mapplethorpe could have used a bullwhip or something racy), and some boring digitals. But before that precarious droop is an awesome collection of the finest of the fine.

The real revelation for me at the DAM this last visit, and I’ve seen the show three times now, was one particular photograph, Leland Rice’s eloquent "Untitled (White Door)," which is the sort of work that utterly overpowers the senses. Like the epic sculptures of Richard Serra or the piano works of Eric Satie, it first seems very simple, empty even, until ultimately you discover that its very emptiness seems definitive.

So, venture down to the DAM and have a splendid time. I cannot imagine anyone not absolutely loving this exhibit.

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