Photography is an art both familiar and obscure. Familiar, because we've all seen tens of thousands of photographs -- in albums, in magazines, in newspapers, on billboards, on cereal boxes -- and they're a pervasive, sometimes unwelcome part of our lives. Obscure, because few of us have seen any of photography's masterworks as the artists intended them to be seen. In reproduction, a photograph is very different from a print created by the photographer; different in size, in tonality, in contrast, in visual impact.
Do not, therefore, even think of missing the new show at the Denver Art Museum, An American Century of Photography: The Hallmark Photographic Collection. This exhibition, an extraordinary assemblage of masterpieces from every era of photography, will be up through Sept. 29. It consists of no fewer than 240 images, assembled over the past several decades by the Hallmark Corporation of Kansas City. It occupies seven galleries at the Denver Art Museum. It's a collection worthy of any of the world's great museums.
This is not a show that you can see in a day, or even two days. After the first gallery, brainlock sets in, as one transcendent image succeeds another, until great photographs begin to look ordinary, and the merely brilliant seem second-rate.
And although the images are beautiful, the exhibition is designed to teach the viewer something of the history of the medium, of its changing aesthetics and evolving techniques.
For most of us, the sheer beauty of the works on display is enough. I was particularly struck by certain images that were utterly unfamiliar, the seldom-reproduced work of unknown photographers.
Take Francis Blake's "Pigeons in Flight" from 1886. Blake, an inventor, physicist and associate of Alexander Graham Bell, whose work is almost completely unknown today, was one of many scientist/experimenters who were fascinated by the possibilities of dry-plate photography. Many times faster than the wet-collodion process, dry plate meant that photographers could literally stop motion, given fast enough shutter speeds.
"Pigeons in Flight," half a dozen birds rising from a patch of urban pavement, white snowflakes against the soot-blackened brick of 19th-century Boston, is a great photograph, as good as anything in the show. As curator Keith King writes (in the 600-plus page tome that serves as an exhibition catalogue), "a perfect synthesis of analysis and intuition, [Blake's] work represents a photographic vision that owed nothing to the influence of other mediums."
Just as the advent of photography changed the way we see the world, so did the advent of electric lighting in the 1890s change the appearance of cities at night. In the Philadelphia Salon of 1898, William A. Fraser's beautifully atmospheric, large-scale print "A Wet Night, Columbus Circle," attracted much attention. A century later, the same print, in its original frame, is hung on the walls of the Denver Art Museum. Far from using a fast shutter, Fraser stood out in the rain and mist, exposing his photographs for as long as 10 minutes, using only the ambient light. Moody, atmospheric, as dreamlike and evocative as one of Monet's "Water Lilies," it's altogether satisfying.
O. Winston Link is to American photography what George Ohr is to American ceramics. They're each brilliant, utterly original, and crankily American. Like Jim Bishop, who's been building his castle down in Westcliffe for the last 30 years, they could only thrive in their native soil.
Link, a New York commercial photographer, and a train nut, decided to document the vanishing steam trains of the Norfolk and Western Railway in 1955. He made over 2,200 images, many at night, illuminating his subjects with an insanely complex arrangement of magnesium flashes linked to the camera's shutter. "Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia, 1956," here displayed, incorporates a drive-in, a movie screen, and the immense, ghostly, image of the passing train. It's as strangely phantasmagoric as a fight scene in The Matrix -- it takes a moment to realize that this is not a quirky photocollage (except for the plane on the drive-in screen!), but a real place, a real time.
Let's see; we've mentioned three images out of 240, and we're out of space. Once again, go see it!