The Beautiful, Unphotogenic Country: David DeHarport and Winter Prather’s Singular Visions of Colorado
From the lofty slopes of Longs Peak to the green waters of Hanging Lake, Colorado is perpetually camera-ready. Little wonder that the state’s national parks and mountain ranges have inspired a long tradition of fine art and landscape photography. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, master photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Fred Payne Clatworthy gained notability for their images of the Rockies. Laura Gilpin turned to the mountainous areas around Colorado Springs. Even contemporary photographers, such as John Fielder, have built their careers on depicting Colorado’s alpine beauty.
David DeHarport roamed Colorado’s austere Eastern Plains, shooting what he called “the beautiful, unphotogenic country.” Winter Prather, meanwhile, produced experimental work that captures the changing aesthetics and cityscape of midcentury Denver. History Colorado holds the largest known collections of both photographers’ works, which have recently been processed and made available to the public thanks to funding from the National Historical Records & Publications Committee.
Looking at DeHarport’s large body of work, one wouldn’t suspect that photography was his second career. Before dedicating himself to the craft full time, he’d spent the twenty previous years in the anthropology field. He earned a BA and MA in anthropology from the University of Denver in 1945, and completed PhD work on the subject at Harvard in 1960. While DeHarport was passionate about his field, photography remained a constant in his life. He began to study the craft in high school and continued to shoot and exhibit photographs through college. And, his photography skills complimented his anthropological work. He used the medium to create prolific photographic surveys of archaeological sites at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, Chichen Itza in Mexico, and the Ajanta Caves in India. DeHarport’s 1,600-page dissertation on Canyon de Chelly alone included 2,600 photographs that he shot himself. In the years following his time at Harvard, DeHarport took positions with the Navajo Claims Commission and Northern Arizona University. Then, in the mid-1960s, he became acutely ill with renal disease. After recovering, he retired from the anthropology field, having decided that if he didn’t pursue the photographs he’d always longed to shoot, he may never get the chance.
Once DeHarport made a full-time commitment to photography, he turned his lens on another lifelong passion: Colorado’s Eastern Plains region. Although raised in Denver, he’d spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ ranch in rural Douglas County. In an artist’s statement, DeHarport described his connection to the area: “My earliest memories include stories of my grandfather’s ox train trips across the short grass plains during the Colorado gold rush and his settling of the ranch . . . . I remember trips to the ‘old ranch’ as a child, and later, during the 1930s, rabbit hunting trips and the dust bowl.” Some of DeHarport’s earliest photographs of the plains date back to the 1940s — though he achieved the bulk of his work in that region from the 1970s to the 1990s.
During DeHarport’s later work on the plains, he partnered with fellow photographer Marscha Winterfield. The two took day trips, driving east from Denver and capturing images of derelict homes, neglected graveyards, silos, irrigation ditches, and sprawling ranches — all set against the region’s sparse landscape. Much of this work culminated in DeHarport and Winterfield’s photographic series “Last Chance to Cope.” They named the series for two towns on the plains, but its scope stretched from the edge of the Rocky Mountains to the west to Colorado’s border with Kansas to the east.
The visual style of DeHarport’s Eastern Plains images ranges from romantic, mostly in his earlier work, to abstract, mostly in the “Last Chance to Cope” series. The work also functions as one of the few existing visual compendiums of a region DeHarport considered “artistically ignored.” Whether photographing hand-lettered business signs in Ramah, the exterior of an abandoned church in Eastonville, or a mural painted on a wall in Kersey, DeHarport worked to document the minute details of life and history on the plains. Considering his past career, his work reads almost like an extension of his archaeological survey photography. In addition, DeHarport kept diaries of his daily photographic excursions from 1963 to 2000. Another holdover from his former career, the diaries read like detailed yet terse field notes, revealing little of the photographer’s emotion or intent. This approach led one critic reviewing a 1994 exhibition of DeHarport’s work to declare, “The state’s prairie lands appear remote — spare, spacey and even boring.” Yet, as mundane as some of his images may have appeared to observers, his Eastern Plains work is remarkable for its completeness. During David DeHarport’s career, he covered approximately 36,000 prairie miles and documented more than ninety communities.
Winter Prather, a fellow Denverite and contemporary of DeHarport’s, had a different take on Colorado. Born in Michigan, Prather first came to Denver as a college student. He graduated from the University of Denver in 1945 with a history degree. Like DeHarport, he learned photography early in life and shot photographs on the side in college.
After graduation, Prather spent time as a contract photographer for the Denver Research Institute. In 1951, he returned to Denver and became a successful freelance photographer at a dynamic time in Colorado’s history. Postwar Colorado swelled with wealth and population as oil, uranium booms, and a budding tourist trade drew growing numbers of people and industries to the state. Many of Prather’s early photos reflect this new sense of prosperity. Likely shot for commercial clients, these images often feature fashionable young women and the ingenuity of new Denver construction and design. Prather’s images of architect I. M. Pei’s Colorado National Bank and Mile High Center and Gio Ponti’s North Building of the Denver Art Museum are prime examples.
Prather was an experimenter as well as an aesthete. In both his commercial and fine art work he sought abstraction in surface textures, reflections, organic forms, the Denver cityscape, and even the work of other artists. In addition, he practiced revolutionary darkroom techniques such as solarization, printing positives as negatives, and double exposing images. These printing methods enabled him to add a sense of unreality to a photograph or imbue an image with multiple layers of visual information and meaning.
Prather’s innovative techniques and visual style were informed by his own intellectual inquiries and his involvement with major photography movements of the day. Although geographically removed from photographic innovators of the period, Prather was certainly not isolated from them. In 1951, he attended the Aspen Institute’s “First Conference on Photography,” which brought luminaries in the field to Colorado. There, Prather had the opportunity to exchange ideas with the likes of Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall. Later in the decade, he became a close friend of photographers Walter Chappell and Minor White. And, Prather ran with a pack of local experimenters in Denver, producing work alongside Nile Root, Arnold Gasson, James Milmoe, and Syl Labrot.
Prather was an undeniable success in the medium throughout the 1950s and ’60s. But starting in the 1970s, his mental faculties began to fail. He suffered from mini-strokes that caused intense breaks with reality. Many suspect that these strokes were caused by selenium poisoning, as Prather employed the substance to tone his photographs. At that time, Prather also grew increasingly preoccupied with mysticism. Coupled with his declining health, Prather’s spirituality was often at the center of the delusions and antisocial behavior that marked the latter years of his life. In the 1980s he had difficulty getting work, leading him into poverty and increased mental illness.
Although Prather spent his final years in relative obscurity, local photographers have seen to it that much of his work survives. After his death in 2005, Prather’s photos were mounted in shows at the Gallery Sink and the Z Art Department in Denver. The exhibits resulted in a monograph on Prather and his work. In addition, local photographer Bill O’Connor preserved a number of Prather’s papers and photographs from those troubled later years. A friend of Prather and DeHarport’s, O’Connor donated Prather’s materials, along with a selection of DeHarport’s work, to History Colorado in 2000. Thanks to these efforts, DeHarport and Prather’s unique views of Colorado will endure.
Adrienne Evans, since 2015, has been History Colorado’s project archivist for the NHPRC-funded Colorado 20th-Century Photography Collections Project. As part of the project, she has processed the David DeHarport, Winter Prather, and Aultman Studio photographs collections and is currently working the Fred Payne Clatworthy collection.
For Further Reading
The collections of Winter Prather and David DeHarport are Ph.00332 and Ph.00500, respectively, at the History Colorado Center in Denver.
See also Michael Paglia’s foreword to Michael Horsley, Winter Prather: The Blink of an Eye (Denver, 2011).