Eight black and white images — a photo collage — of a figure that looks wrapped for burial at sea, shrouded and tagged with an American flag occasionally upside down, run in sequence along the opening wall of the gallery. The collage is part of the current exhibit titled Photography and Vision: The Influence of Joyce and Ted Strauss at the Denver Art Museum. The photos cannot help but feel politically loaded, viewed as they are in these early days of the exhibition, which have coincided with so much violence overseas, so much bad news for soldiers, so many bodies to be wrapped and shipped home. One face peels back from the shroud, chin up toward the light, the expression mostly lost behind the arc of well-lit jawbone. We’ll never know if that’s ecstasy or agony, but it feels like it must be the latter — the ache of muscles seizing within the tightly bound shroud, and the urge to feel more free.
Like so much experimental art, the viewer is able to interpret the messaging at will. A little biographical knowledge is required to frame these photographs in the context its creator might have wanted to fit it within. Three years before making these photographs, Wesley Kennedy was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and three years after, he would be dead.
It’s a rough hello for visitors to Photography and Vision, but it’s an appropriate greeting. What follows is a series of images bound only by their selection by a husband and wife pair of collectors who found them worth viewing in a museum, and therefore worth having in the permanent collection of the museum. While there’s little to tie them together aesthetically, there’s a potency in all of them that becomes a theme. And there’s a delightful foray — in this homage to the work of two collectors for whom the Denver Art Museum curatorial staff have expressed their boundless thanks — into simply looking at how their interests evolved as they built a collection.
Joyce and Ted Strauss were collecting New American art when Joyce saw an exhibition of pioneering American modernist photographer Paul Strand’s work at the Light Gallery in New York City in 1975. She came to Ted saying that photography might be something they should look into collecting. Over the years that followed, they’ve donated some 250 images to the Denver Art Museum, beginning in 1978. Just recently, they shipped a crate of 10 more photos for the collection. To acknowledge and celebrate their ongoing generosity, Denver Art Museum Curator of Photography Eric Paddock put together an exhibition of their photographs. (The Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego has also recognized their contributions, first in the 2002 exhibition Double Vision: The Strauss Collection, and then again in 2007 in Rebels and Revelers: Experimental Decades, 1970s-1980s – Gifts from the Joyce and Ted Strauss Collection.)
The story Photography and Vision tells is of the evolving voice of two novice photography curators eventually finding their niche for photography collection.
Ted Strauss worked as the adjunct curator of photography for the Denver Art Museum from 1985 to 1994, paid $1 a year to put together up to four exhibitions. The Strausses believed that if a photograph was good enough to be shown at the museum, it was good enough to have in the permanent collection, according to Paddock. So in addition to donating photographs, they helped steer other donations from exhibitions into the museum’s permanent collection (which, as one realizes when it flexes its muscles in something like the Garry Winogrand exhibit from two years ago, is quite extensive). When Paddock told them he was putting together this show, they said the view of their contributions wouldn’t be complete without also looking at those works they directed to the museum from other benefactors. So, he added them.
“It’s a little bit of a mish-mash … but in a way reflective of their developing tastes,” Paddock says.
A classic, glowing Robert Doisneau of a man standing among the dismantled pieces of a larger-than-life statue shares the space with Robert Adams’ four small shots from Longmont and Fort Collins taken in 1985. His photos, simply named for the cities in which they were taken, show an empty parking lot or the view of a living room from outside its street-facing window.
Photography fought a long battle to earn its place among the arts, Paddock writes in the introduction to the catalog for Photography and Vision. It was too often equated with mass-produced media, like catalogues and postcards, or with social or archeological documentary work. Not art. Not something that deserved its own department in a museum. The Denver Art Museum didn’t get a photography department until 2008, though it began gathering photos in 1937 with the purchase of a complete set of Edward C. Curtis portfolios and books for The North American Indian. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that it began to earn a place as a museum-worthy art form.
There were, needless to say, few photography texts to guide the Strausses in their early collection. So they began with the idea of creating a historically comprehensive assembly of photographs, and their initial entries for the collection trended toward breadth. In the beginning, the collection moved toward building a historical overview of photographs that drew from subject areas including landscapes, portraits and architecture and date back to the earliest forms of photography.
A rear-facing nook in the gallery that houses the exhibit has a wall dominated by photogravures from the 1800s and early 1900s, one of which was made within years of Daguerre’s origination of photography in the middle 1800s. The portrait’s aesthetics borrow from European paintings of the same era — it looks like a Rembrandt, complete with chiaroscuro, Paddock observes.
The historic interlude is just that, an interlude, and the next wall houses a Chuck Close self-portrait that’s just the artist’s eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses and the few roots of the beard that would continue off frame. There is, of course, a Winogrand on view, one that takes a quirky look at Castle Rock, captured with power lines and street lights in the frame and the Chaplin-esque mockery of its shape in the form of a shadow of a car.
“Really, the thing that binds it together was it was one couple’s intelligence and enthusiasm that shaped it,” Paddock says of the exhibition. “I think the exciting thing for them was to be out looking at a whole bunch of contemporary art and developing their sense of what was interesting and what wasn’t.”
Over time, they honed an eye for experimental work, and began focusing their support on the work of Coloradobased photographers, among them Adams, who often photographed in the Front Range and to whom Strauss dedicated two solo shows during his time as curator.
Theirs became, as Paddock describes it, an “omnivorous and adventurous taste.”
An eye for the experimental leads, for the viewer of Photography and Vision, to a feeling of being immersed in the unknown and unknowable — doors that are just opening, emptied hallways and parking lots, fractions of a life seen through the front windows of homes and fragments of a person strung together in a way that gives a thorough, if disjointed, image.
“They’ve been collecting photography for 40 years, and photographs and our understanding of photography have changed so much in that time,” Paddock says. He could curate an exhibit of their photographs four more times, he says, and each would be different.
“At some point, as they start transferring things to the museum, it’s up to somebody else to make sense of it,” he says.
And for now, it falls to us.