Earlier this month, Denver’s nationally known Camera Obscura Gallery closed its doors, a consequence of the recession and, perhaps, the owner’s advancing age — Hal Gould, himself an acclaimed photographer, is now 91. The gallery, one of the first in the country devoted to photography as a fine art, opened in 1979 with an exhibition of Eliot Porter’s Birds in Flight. I was deeply saddened to hear of its closing; for me, as for many, it had been one of the landmarks of Denver’s art scene.
For over three decades, Camera Obscura occupied a two-story warren of rooms in a late-Victorian townhouse just across the street from the Denver Art Museum, so a visit to the museum often ended with a visit to Camera Obscura. This was most likely to happen if I was with my mother, herself a photographer. As other former visitors to the gallery have noted, Gould himself was almost invariably on hand to greet you. An immediately recognizable figure with his silver beard and western-style bolo tie, Gould always seemed eager to engage in conversation –- though, as I remember, his advancing deafness could make this a challenge.
In dramatic contrast to the wide-open, sleekly minimalist aesthetic of most modern art galleries, Camera Obscura’s displays rambled through a series of rooms whose uniform coat of white paint barely obscured their past as a Victorian home. It was in this casual, intimate, even cluttered environment that I encountered many of the luminaries of modern photography, such as Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Imogen Cunningham — my mother bought a print of Cunningham’s Unmade Bed from Gould.
My own most vivid memories are of a retrospective of O. Winston Link’s photographs of the steam-powered Norfolk and Western railroad. Link photographed the trains and landscapes they travelled through in the late fifties, the twilight of the great era of train travel. His coolly beautiful, elegantly composed photographs capture the contradictions of midcentury America, in which horse-drawn carts still might appear at small rural stations, while drive-in movie theaters and brightly lit swimming pools rose in glossy suburbs. Seeing Link’s work in a space that mixed high art with domesticity only heightened the experience. Gould also sold photography books, and one day I found a used copy of an Aperture monograph on pioneering English photographer Frederick H. Evans, another landmark in the development of my appreciation of photography.
Camera Obscura also featured contemporary work, such as Baghdad and Beyond, Iraqi photographer Zoriah’s images of the American occupation, in 2008, and championed local photographers such as Gifford Ewing, whose work evokes that of fellow Coloradoan Robert Adams. For more than thirty years, Gould made Denverites and out-of-towners alike part of a very personal conversation about photography and its status as fine art. While Gould continues with his own photography and with his memoirs, and a retrospective of his own work is opening in the historic Byers-Evans house across the street, the gallery he ran for so long will be sorely missed.