Aspen Times Weekly: Poems, Prayers and Promises (and Photographs)
What: Sweet, Sweet Life: The Photographic Works of John Denver
Where: Gideon Gartner Gallery, Anderson Ranch Arts Center
When: Oct. 10-17
More information: www.andersonranch.org
A connection to nature, a life on the road far from home, a love for the mountains surrounding Aspen. These are the enduring themes of John Denver’s iconic music, of course, but as a new exhibition of his photography at Anderson Ranch Arts Center displays, his artistic exploration of them was not limited to singing and songwriting. And his talent, it turns out, went beyond music.
“He was truly a photographer,” says Amy Abrams, of 7S Management, the Denver-based firm that has handled John Denver’s estate since 2010. “[The show] is not just about a hokey celebrity who took photos.”
The photos, unsurprisingly, include some vivid scenes in the local mountains, including a group on horseback in the backcountry, cowboys and their horses at sunset, close-ups of a hawks, a coyote, aspen trees and columbines, and a shot of a hot-air balloon set against a blue sky at the Snowmass Balloon Festival. In a “self-portrait,” Denver photographed his shadow projected against a stand of pine trees from a mountain ridge.
His work from his travels around the world focus more on people, with street scenes from Europe and Asia, and shots of the Apollo 11 astronauts’ parade in Manhattan and an anti-war rally at the Washington Monument in 1969.
“It’s all in keeping with what he stood for,” says Andrea Wallace, artistic director of photography at Anderson Ranch.
The Anderson Ranch show includes a selection of the photographs Denver’s estate recently opened to the public for sale. It opens Friday with a reception at 5 p.m.
“The ranch is happy to show his work because obviously he’s known all over the world for his singing, but people may be unaware that his artistic practice was even broader, and extended to photography and visual arts,” says Wallace.
The photography show complements a slate of John Denver tribute concerts and related activities (see Current Events, page 6).
“Over the years I’ve always enjoyed taking photos as a way of relaxing,” Denver said in 1983. “For me it offers a wonderful opportunity to stop and focus on this moment right here and forget all the other things.”
He took photography seriously, and on tour he was known to bring along two 35 mm cameras, eight lenses and other gadgets.
“I get a lot of flack about it,” he said in 1983. “My camera bag is the heaviest thing on the tour.”
Abrams spearheaded the idea of showcasing John Denver’s photography, which has rarely been exhibited. The singer is known to have had just three photo shows during his lifetime, at the Hammer Gallery in New York in 1980, one in Denver in 1983, and one at the Aspen Art Museum in 1989, which focused on his photos of flowers and foliage.
Denver once said he felt less secure showing his photography than he did playing a live concert, “because my photography is about the way I look at things.”
Abrams and the curators form Leon Gallery in Denver went through the trove — an estimated 10,000 photos and slides — that Denver left behind in his private Aspen archive.
“We went through every single photo and slide and negative that the estate had,” Abrams explains. “That was the fun part.”
Denver also kept binders and notebooks that provided a look at his thought process and his approach to art, which in turn helped the curators decide how they wanted to present the work to the public. Those insights showed Denver to be more than a hobbyist when it came to photography.
“He was a total gear-head and really into experimenting with camera technology,” Abrams says, “keeping in mind that this was before digital.”
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