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Signs of the Times

Recently, I've been photographing window displays on Boulder, Colorado's legendary Pearl Street Mall. In the low-angle, flat, winter light, I shoot the window displays early in the morning before the stores open and the crowds descend. Sometimes that low light turns a scene into a modern-day Edward Hopper-like photograph. I work quickly as the street photographer I am, shooting and then moving on. But, here, as Yogi Berra once said, "It's like déjà vu all over again," because now after 30 years, I'm once again shooting on the Mall, but with a completely different vision.

When I moved down to Boulder from my mountain cabin. http://www.zone913.com/blog/my-mountain-cabin/ I transitioned from having to ski in to a cabin, with no neighbors closer than three miles, to living in the middle of a big crazy village. I shared a house with a professional home brewer just three blocks from the Pearl Street Mall. For a year, I worked as a photographer, shooting that central part of Boulder, with the Mall serving as my axis mundi. I got to know many of the regular Mall characters of that time, some of whom were talented individuals, each taking an unconventional path, yet somehow weaving themselves together to form the fabric of a functioning performance community.

Like the tides in my series of photographs titled Liquid Abstracts, http://www.zone913.com/liquid-abstracts/ the mall had its own rhythm, one that reached the tsunami stage of crazy on warm summer nights. At that time, Naropa Institute drew legions of artists, poets, mystics, film makers, directors and musicians to Boulder from all over the country, along with other characters of different stripes, for their summer sessions, and many migrated to the Mall at night. Impromptu jazz and rock concerts, Ginsberg poetry readings, and other events popped up, while acrobats, jugglers, tight-rope walkers, and performers with fires, knives and swords simultaneously performed their acts. 

One of the more colorful Mall characters was Freddie, a Kiwi from New Zealand, who owned a yellow hot dog stand. He could carry on multiple running conversations, day-after-day, with different people, as they went about their business. He sold hotdogs during both the hot and the cold seasons. Then, he would take a month off to go rock climbing in some remote part of the world, before returning to once again sell hot dogs. A memorable experience one night was watching a classically-trained musician, barefoot and wearing white tuxedo tails, begin to dance around on the concrete like a dervish while playing complex mesmerizing music on his electric violin. The audience, composed of all kinds of folks, watched in amazement with a communal slack-jaw. Another was the late Johnny the Sword Swallower, who after discovering that someone on the Mall had ripped off his magic act, learned to swallow swords, figuring it would be harder for anyone to swipe that act. He went on to gain national recognition as a sword swallower, and his obituary was recently printed in the New York Times. Boulder then was part of the circuit for traveling street performers, who worked their way across the country from city to city, following the warm weather. I was surprised years later to see some of these same performers, now more polished, performing in different cities.

One of the most successful outdoor Malls in the country, the four-block-long Pearl Street Mall was dedicated on August 6, 1977.  It received national exposure when the television series Mork & Mindy filmed in Boulder, and featured actors Robin Williams  http://www.zone913.com/a-robin-williams/ and Pam Dawber hanging out in the New York Deli on the Mall. For a number of years, the Mall was ranked the best in the country, and used as an example for urban planning, where it became instrumental in the revival of other downtown centers. In Boulder, it became an instant meeting place.

I started photographing window displays in Aspen because of the similarities between Boulder and Aspen. Historically, both towns were oriented around mining, then evolved into becoming destination points for people wanting to visit, vacation and live because of their inherent beauty. Some say Boulder is becoming "Aspenized" as the old family businesses are being replaced by high-end specialty shops, distinctive restaurants, boutiques and at least six outdoor recreation/climbing stores, as well as new start-ups, design/tech firms, banks and lawyers. As the new businesses become more sophisticated and upscale, so do their window displays. I began this photographic series of window displays in Aspen because I like the bold graphics, clean typography, and the high-quality resolution of the images. Then I continued the series in Boulder because I saw the same elements.

With my Liquid Abstracts series, I fused my photojournalism with my experience in painting large canvases, and likewise, I approach these window photographs more as hybrid abstracts than as pure documentation. More importantly, I'm responding to the ambiguity and dissolution of the realities that the window reflections imply, while creating new images of my own. On an informational level, I'm interested in what they are saying, and how they are choosing to say it.

Thirty years ago, after spending much of a year in Boulder photographing the Mall, I was sent on assignment to photograph the Explorers Club Chagres River Expedition in the Darien jungle of Panama, with writer Victoria Thomas. As we became acquainted, we started a new chapter together, with journeys that continue to this day. http://www.zone913.com/founders/

After Panama, I never spent much time on the Mall. Until several intense days of recent shooting. Now I realize that just as I learned to read the tides when shooting Liquid Abstracts, by being on the beach all day, my many hours on the Mall have taught me a lot about its rhythm.

Incidentally, the home brewer I once shared a house with near the Mall went on to write a best-selling book about brewing, and became an integral part of the success of the (then) newly emerging micro brewing industry. During my stay there, that old joke of "Free Beer Tomorrow" was actually a reality.

Text and Photos: © David Björkman — Boulder, Colorado