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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 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 went from having to ski in to a cabin, with no neighbors closer than three miles, to living in the middle of what seemed like a big crazy village. I shared a house with a professional home brewer, just three blocks from the Pearl Street Mall. For over 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 from that time, some of whom were talented individuals, each taking an unconventional path, yet somehow weaving themselves together to form the fabric of an ad hoc performance community.

Like the tides in my Liquid Abstracts photographs, the Mall had its own rhythm, one that reached the tsunami stage of crazy on warm summer nights. During 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 fire, knives and swords simultaneously performed their acts. 

One of the more colorful, long-term Mall characters was Freddie, a Kiwi from New Zealand, who owned a hot dog stand with a bright yellow sign announcing, "Freddie's Vienna Beef Hot Dogs." He was personable, and would carry on multiple conversations, continuing day-after-day, with all types of people, as they went about their business on the Mall. He sold hot dogs year round, in the heat and the cold. Then, he would take time off to go rock climbing in some remote part of the world, before returning to sell hot dogs. Freddie has moved on, but his brand and his cart still live on the Mall today, continuing to sell hot dogs. A most memorable experience one night was watching a classically-trained musician, barefoot and wearing white tuxedo tails, dance around like a dervish, while playing hauntingly beautiful music on his electric violin. The audience, composed of all kinds of folks, watched enthralled with a communal slack-jaw. Another performer was the late Johnny the Sword Swallower, who after discovering that someone had ripped off his magic act, learned to swallow swords — figuring it would be harder for anyone to swipe that. He went on to gain national recognition as a sword swallower, and I recently read his obituary in the New York Times. Boulder was part of a 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, set in Boulder, featured actors Robin Williams  http://www.zone913.com/a-robin-williams/ and Pam Dawber hanging out in the New York Deli on the Mall. The Boulder Mall was ranked the best in the country for a number of years, and was used as an example for urban planning, becoming instrumental in the revival of other downtown centers. For Boulderites, it was a central gathering place.

This past summer, I started photographing window displays in Aspen. There are similarities between Aspen and Boulder, as historically both were oriented toward the mining industries, and later evolved into a destination spot for people to visit, vacation and live, because of their area's special 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 was originally drawn to the bold graphics, clean typography and the high-quality resolution of the images I saw in Aspen. Now, seeing some of these same visual elements here in Boulder, I continued shooting on the Mall.

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 that special time in Boulder photographing the Mall, I was sent on assignment to photograph the Explorers Club Chagres River Expedition in the Darien jungle of Panama, along with writer Victoria Thomas. There, we became acquainted and began a new chapter together, with journeys that continue to this day. http://www.zone913.com/founders/

After Panama, I didn't spend much time shooting on the Mall, until recently. Now, I realize that just as I learned to read the tides shooting Liquid Abstracts, by being on the beach all day, my hours spent on the Mall have allowed me to understand its new rhythm.

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

Text and Photos: © David Björkman — Boulder, Colorado

To read more interesting and unusual Blog stories, go to: http://www.zone913.com/blog/