Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Denver: Colfax Neon

This past weekend's trip to Colorado was highlighted by the opportunity to meet some cool people and discuss a range of fascinating aspects of convergence at the Rocky Mountain Communication Association's annual conference [here's my keynote speech]. But my trip also afforded me the chance to do a little driving and clear my head a bit. With all the hassles and stresses of the past few months, it was a real treat to find some big sky and open highway far from everyday life. Along the way, I took the time to photograph some collapsing farm houses lining the interstate. But the evening's destination, strangely enough, was the big city. After all, Denver boasts some swell neon that I'd never seen.

Our previous trips to the Colorado capital had always been in daylight. The initial visit, back in '96, was at the tail-end of our first Route 66 cross-country trip. We'd made it to California and were returning via Nevada, Utah, and the plains states, heading home to Ohio. We'd just coasted down through the Rockies, amazed to see real snow even in the summer, and the three of us gazed eastward to see a long, flat horizon. In between: the Mile High City. We didn't know it then, but our drive through Denver would include a trip down the road that most folks claim is the nation's longest main street - which is a good thing, because Colfax Avenue really is a terrific stretch for Old School signage. But again, our visit then and those that followed were regrettably restricted to daylight hours.

I made up for that error this past weekend. The problem is that Denver has instituted (God knows why) draconian ordinances against animated signs. Indeed, I only saw two or three of them sparkling and blinking with tacky neon abandon. How shortsighted of Denver's so-called urban professionals! Even so, I enjoyed an evening's search for animated and static signs. Of the moving variety, the Bluebird Theater is clearly the best in town [Check out my video]. Once a vaudeville palace, the Bluebird now features traveling bands (and, if online reviews are to believed, some mighty surly bouncers). I'm happy to report that the attitude outside was relaxed. As is regularly the case, people would stop and wonder, "Why's this guy photographing a sign?" Maybe they'd look a little closer at the thing they'd previously ignored and begin to see it anew.

A mile or so west, I saw a couple other signs that would have looked wonderful in the age of animated neon. I could only imagine the smiles elicited by Pete's Kitchen when its happy chef was permitted to flip, I dunno, pancakes. Still, I set up my newly-bought tripod and tried out the twilight capabilities of my new Canon Elph. The results were more than acceptable for a camera so small it could be lost in the wash. The camera produced no real "noise" (you know, the graininess that accompanies low-light conditions) and decent color. A block further west, I also took some shots of the Satire Lounge, enjoying the chance to share the moment with another couple of shutterbugs who shared my neon vision.

Light drizzle turned into moderate rain. The Taxi Driver vibe, those gaudy colors and a hint of steam rising off the oily streets, appealed to me. Truth be told though, I couldn't get too far into the mood, since I also used the time to chat with a student who'd emailed me a question related to the peer mentor training class I teach. Even far away in Denver, it's hard to take a vacation from real life, thanks to my many electronic leashes (admittedly, each having an "off" switch). Really, I didn't mind. Indeed, maybe as thanks for my effort to help someone in need, the Roadtrip Gods smiled on me and cleared the rain sufficiently to allow a photo of the Rocky Mtn. Motel sign. Wow, what a piece of modern art.

Again, I'd seen this place by day two or three times. Each visit, I'd struggle to frame a decent shot. The horizontals and verticals of this sign are trickier than they look, and they required me, I'm embarrassed to say, to use a bit of Photoshop magic just to get a decent looking composition. The results were worth the effort. Just think about the cost of maintaining neon, especially with the dearth of professionals who can bend the glass and prepare the gas to produce that gorgeous, otherworldly effect. I've talked to a lot of motel owners who gave up on the whole thing, complaining about one too many drunk kids hoisting beer bottles, or one too many hailstorms doing thousands of dollars of damage in an instant. Why these owners maintain this sign in a seedy part of town, I can't begin to guess. But I'm sure happy they do. My latest Denver visit complete, I made one last pass down Colfax, reshooting the Bluebird in more pure darkness before heading north out of town. Grateful for the opportunity to glimpse some classic neon signage while it's still standing, I smiled into the darkness.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

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