An artist reframed: Painter Chuck Forsman finally exhibits his photography

Denver Art Museum hosts exhibit of photos from two collections

Near Battle Mountain Nevada, a 2002 photograph
All photos by Chuck Forsman

Late one night, while driving through Utah, artist Chuck Forsman saw a dead cow on the road and stopped to photograph it.

“I think I did it just kind of to wake me up,” Forsman says. Ordinarily, he would have gotten out of the car to take the photo, perhaps to be added to a collection that fed into his meticulously composed paintings, but this time, he photographed it through the windshield. One of his kids sleeping in the backseat crawled up to the front, and the two of them spent the rest of the drive watching the horizon, speculating about lights in the distance.

He’d been exploring movement in his paintings — the way we experience it and our awareness of things moving past in his paintings — and had even made a painting based on a photograph taken while riding a Greyhound bus across Wyoming, an unusually true-to-the-instant photograph for him. He’d long been taking photographs to generate material for his paintings, and his in-progress canvases are said to be surrounded by a mélange of images, to provide various elements for his composition — an elbow here, a slouch there, a certain curve in the landscape. Photography has always been a part of his work, and work unto itself since the mid-1970s when he started photographing billboards before the Beautify America campaign that was supposed to see them all cut down took hold.

But his identity lies in his work as a painter, so call him a photographer and he laughs and says it’s still a surprise to hear himself given that label. But after about 20 museum exhibitions of his paintings, one opened Nov. 17 at the Denver Art Museum that is the first to focus on his photography.

“I told my friends who were coming to the opening, ‘Come, this is charades,’ I said, ‘I’m going to be posing as a photographer, you can come as anything you want,’” he says.

“Boulder, Colorado,” 2002

“What interests me about these photographs of Chuck’s is that they really pay attention to the things that are going on around you — in many cases, anticipates things that are going to happen or responds to things, fleeting things that just happen,” says Eric Paddock, curator of photography for the Denver Art Museum. “Chuck is prepared to photograph those and make these images that are really about that exploration of the American West.”

What Paddock puts in conversation in Seen in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman are 40 photographs, taken from two series shot for books, and three paintings. The gallery splits almost equally between the contents of the two books, Western Rider and Walking Magpie, both shot with an aesthetic focused on reframing the world in brief, moment-bymoment chunks, one from the view of a driver traversing the western American landscape, and the other from the aspect of a man on a walk with the family dog. While they seem only thinly connected in style, they share a deep thread of interest in representing our world and how we’ve shaped it to ourselves.

Paddock talks about the “unintentional autobiographies” we leave in every landscape we’ve changed being the center of Forsman’s work. Forsman was among the first landscape painters to turn his brush toward environmental commentary, completing painting series like Arrested Rivers on dams across the United States. His paintings touched on environmental conflicts and the consequences of population growth and water control — and the three that hang in the gallery alongside his photos are touchstones of that legacy, reminders that there are still environmental undertones at play here.

“Central Utah,” 1994-1998

“I don’t think anyone can be as ardent and as engaged about an issue as Chuck was, say in the 1970s and 1980s, and then simply drop it,” Paddock says. “I think the photographs, in many respects, are subtler, maybe gentler. I think they’re more nuanced in terms of their narrative content than some of the paintings are, and many of the paintings I think are rather confrontational. … His photographs maybe are just quieter, maybe that’s what it is. But I don’t think they’re any less engaged with environmental issues.”

It is, indeed, a meta-theme that Forsman had in mind, and the metaphor for it peeks out three times in the full series for Western Rider — the three incidences of dinosaurs.

“I was thinking of the car as a kind of dinosaur,” Forsman says. “I was thinking of the car, this thing burning this fossil fuel, I was thinking that this era was coming to an end. … So I was representing the 20th century, a time when we could travel at will with cheap fuel and just pollute. … I was thinking of my doing this as kind of a last hurrah, of looking at America and, in this case, the West, because I do think of the West as kind of an exaggeration of what America is.”

He tried to cover as much territory as he could for Western Rider, which accumulated over years of road trips, and yes, Forsman shot while driving.

“Near Denver, Colorado,” 2003

“I was very aware that it could be hazardous, but nobody’s paying attention to what they’re doing any more than me because I was just ready for anything all the time and also, when it gets up here,” he says as he brings a hand pantomiming a camera body to his eye, “I can see. Maybe I’m making rationalizations, but I didn’t have a wreck.”

The notable, regrettable exception from the body of work, he concedes, is that there are very few photos taken from urban settings.

“I found it was really unsafe to be doing this in the city and I see that as a real liability of this project,” he says. “There’s one in Denver actually right downtown and it was an anxious moment when I took it, so there’s an example of something I couldn’t safely do, and I missed out on very much a big part of our lives and I regret that, but I might not be here if I had tried.”

Forsman was clear on the aesthetic: The frame, or an element of the car, appears in every shot — a 40mm lens for his lightweight Pentax LX was a key to the project, fast and sharp enough to shoot the material but wide enough to take in portions of the car frame, windshield wipers or rearview mirrors as well.

It is, after all, the perspective from which we see most of the world.

“Central Wyoming,” 1994-1998

“I thought, wow, I’m always getting out of the car to take, you know, serious pictures, but that’s not the way we see the outside world,” Forsman says. “It just hit me that we see most of the outside world through our car windows.”

His first thought was of the problems posed by the task of shooting out of a car window, like the reflections on the windows and the parts of the frame of the car that would get in the way of the shot. In the end, though, those liabilities became assets to the project, incorporated into an aesthetic that develops a deeply personal feel. It’s a technique he says he borrows from Dutch painter Jan Vermeer — a forced intimacy, a sense of voyeurism, of looking in on something so personal you were never meant to be able to see it.

“Early on, hitchhiking back East, I went into the National Gallery and I remember looking at the Vermeers and they just seemed like miracles to me, I kept leaving to go see more and I kept going back and back,” Forsman says. “Part of what I decided was special, besides the amazing skill and the beauty, was the intimacy of the pictures. Part of that intimacy came from the fact that, picture after picture, you would be behind something, the picture would be framed by a wall or a chair, there was something between you and the scene and sometimes you felt almost like a voyeur, like you’re looking in on something, like you’re peeking past a doorframe at these intimate scenes, but that kind of frame that moved the scene away from you, that gave you a first-person experience, it placed you there. … That was one of the things I thought of when I started Western Rider and it became terribly important to that picture that I utilize that frame in such a way you became aware of distinction between the intimate place where you were and that big expanse outside.”

The viewer is literally immersed in a scene that by rights is the property of only one: the view of a driver.

In Caffeine Medley, as hung in the gallery, a nine-image collection of photos shot while driving at night, with the moon and the clouds, the headlights and taillights of his car and the others on the highway dancing across the film, the viewer’s perspective is defined by the shape of the headlights that cut out across the pavement. There’s no mistaking that this is a shot taken behind the driver’s wheel — or, more precisely, from a bean-bag on the dashboard, which Forsman used to stabilize the camera while keeping the shutter open for a long exposure.

“It occurred to me that when you drive at night, it’s quite a different experience of when you’re in a car, you are, you’re very aware I think, particularly in the American West where we have these vast spaces, we are hurtling along in a tiny capsule, it’s very intimate,” he says. “You are aware that you are this miniscule item in this vast space around you, and that in itself is something quite wonderful.”

While Forsman’s paintings are meticulously, slowly created, sometimes over years and through repeated visits to locations and multiple drawings and photographs of that place to, as he says, try to work out and think about what’s going on, the photographs are the product of only moments.

“It’s quite a different process to be driving down the road or walking down the street or walking my dog and see something and just respond,” he says. “It’s kind of athletic, kind of intuitive, and it almost seems irresponsible compared to what I do in a painting, but that becomes a kind of skill and you have to develop instincts and you have to be very alert to be ready for all the possibilities of the situation.”

Walking Magpie, the later work, was the fresh-eyed beginning, inspired by his children, that picked up where Western Rider left off. The series is often about seeing the world with the equal-opportunity curious eyes of a dog on a walk. The idea of putting a dog in the scene as an innocent in the environment was one he lifted from the French court painter Antoine Watteau, who painted a clown into those decadent, frivolous court scenes to provide a foil to the cast of nobles likely taking them selves too seriously.

“Overlooking Boulder, Colorado,” 2004

While Western Rider shots were made — with one or two exceptions — as one-off moments, that fleeting instance of a deer dashing toward the dotted line or the moment a raven happens to pass just above on a day that had stunning light, in unfamiliar territory across the American West, Walking Magpie often saw Forsman, Magpie and his rarely left behind camera on trails they’d walked hundreds of times around their Boulder home. There were exceptions there, too: a pair of road trips looping through eastern regions of the country that produced images like a photograph made in the moments just after they arrived at a beach in Florida and just before they were informed dogs aren’t allowed on beaches in Florida.

“That was an outlaw picture,” Forsman says of his one shot of Magpie on the sand with sunbathers basking beside the forbidden dog.

“I travel regularly, from time to time I’ll just take these trips where I just go and explore regions,” Forsman says. “I just am monitoring. I go back and look and see what’s changed, just gather impressions. I like to think that I’m looking at America and thinking about who we are.”

Though Magpie is no longer still around, the book of Forsman’s photos is finally getting to join the family.

“This was a pipe dream, you know, it was just pictures that accumulated that I was hoping would turn into a book, but there was no evidence it was going to happen,” he says. The book, Walking Magpie: On and Off the Leash, is being published in a partnership by George Thompson Publishing and the Denver Art Museum.

“The two series of photographs taken together have something to say not only about the world as it looks and how we treat it and how it’s shaping up, but it also has to do with how we encounter the world and what I see as Chuck’s openness and his willingness to look and to see and to accept things as they’re given to him rather than setting out for a particular destination or with a particular rhetorical axe to grind,” Paddock says. “In general, I think these photographs have to do with the world around us, how we encounter it and how we shape the landscape just by interacting with nature. Everything we do, we leave a mark.”

Seen in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman is on view at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, in Denver, through May 25, 2014. The books, Western Rider and Walking Magpie, are available at the museum gift shop and for order online.