“Down in Denver, Down in Denver
All I did was die”
— Jack Kerouac, from “On the Road.”
Not too much has changed since the late 1940s, when Jack Kerouac – “a white man disillusioned” – walked among the lights of 27th and Welton in Denver’s Five Points, feeling that the best the white world had offered “was not enough ecstasy, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”*
A decade later, the photographer Robert Frank tapped Kerouac to introduce “The Americans,” Frank’s bleak portrait of America’s underbelly told in grainy, off-kilter black-and-white. Like Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Frank’s book blew a blasphemous fart in the face of The American Dream, which, in truth, touched relatively few in a militarized U.S. gripped by segregation and McCarthyist paranoia.
The influence of the Beats, like the scent of marijuana, never left Denver, and the ghosts of Frank and Kerouac still appear now and then. One gritty photo essay by Robert Watters, published in the now-defunct Straight Creek Journal in 1974, documented residents of Colfax Avenue on the street and at work: “hustlers hustling hustlers [on a] motorized River Styx,” as a Beat-inspired Freddy Bosco described them.**
“Down in Denver” is not nearly as apocalyptic in tone, but its black-and-white photographs are forthright and often bravely confrontational, which is unusual for Denver, even in today’s politically-charged times. Comprised of two interwoven series’ — one by Jody Akers and one by Billy “ghost lenz” Riesing — the show concentrates on Denver’s graffiti-littered urban landscape populated (with a few crowd exceptions) by individuals living marginal lives. For the most part we don’t see the down and out, as the title suggests, but we do see the down and resilient — people struggling to find their particular safety net and attain some margin of stability.
The venue is ideal: the VFW’s upstairs gallery is funky, weathered, and atmospheric — everything an alternative space should be (excepting its lack of wheelchair access). More significantly, however, a recent HUD report counted Colorado’s homeless veteran population at 1,181 — almost equal to that of New York State***. The people represented on the walls here include some of them, like James, who we will visit with later.
Akers, who still uses a 35mm film camera, photographs in a humanistic documentary style that draws the viewer into each tonally rich image. One discordant portrait of a smartly dressed musician — perhaps standing outside his church on a Sunday, perhaps busking for small change — is especially resonant, as much for his bulging pocket protector as for the glare he gives Akers’ camera. ghost lenz, by contrast, photographs digitally in a slightly oblique, photojournalistic style. His prints are denser, more forceful, and less engaging, but they balance Akers’ work well. It is educational to see both sets exhibited together and to compare their individual and collective qualities.
Both photographers are contributing to the long tradition of concerned documentary photography. Within some viewers’ lifetimes, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941) by Walker Evans and James Agee documented the wretched poverty experienced by sharecropper families in the Great Depression. In the mid-1950s, at the time of Kerouac and Frank, writer Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava collaborated on “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” a poetic depiction of an extended working-class family in Harlem that counteracted stereotypes of African-American dysfunction and poverty.
Thirty years later, Jim Goldberg’s “Rich and Poor” (1985/2013) juxtaposed portraits of people living in luxury apartments and single-room-occupancy hotels with first-person narratives in the form of hand-written text. In Goldberg’s revised book there is a photo of a man who looks like Prince in his shabby-chic hotel room. A cat is sitting on his lap. Under the image one reads, in his looping handwriting: ”I am going to build an empire.”
What unites all those image-based projects is something “Down in Denver” lacks – a written narrative. If you meet Jody Akers, he will tell you stories about all the people he photographed – about the man (James) who showers in a run-off by the Platte River and sleeps on a wood pallet in the winter so the ground doesn’t suck the warmth out of his body. He will tell you how every morning that man will stretch out his arms and say “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Day!” before going out to meet it.
Without words to narrate their images, Akers and ghost lenz are telling only half the story; from an ideological perspective they are selling their subjects, and their own efforts, short. Given commitment and the right tools, politically engaged work — which I categorize “Down in Denver” as being — can inspire important change. With their show, both artists have made a significant first step in that direction. Like James, they could become inspirational agents of the change their imagery demands.
“Down in Denver” is on view at the VFW Post, 841 Santa Fe Drive, through April 7th, 2017. The VFW does not have regular hours. To be sure to see the show, visit the gallery during the upcoming March 17 and April 7 Friday art walks (6-10 pm). The show is presented in conjunction with Denver’s Month of Photography (mopdenver.com).
Rupert Jenkins is a writer and curator who lives in Denver. His company, Durrington Edits, specializes in arts-related editorial projects, exhibition planning, and consulting, with an emphasis on photography and the photo-related arts. rupertjenkins.com.
* Quoted from “On the Road,” Part 3, Chapter 1.
** “A Lullaby of Cold Facts,” photography by Robert Watters, text by Freddy Bosco. Published in The Straight Creek Journal, December 10-16, 1974; pp. 8-9.