Gary Reed’s “Equitable Building Staircase” focuses on the interior details of one of Denver’s oldest structures. (Provided by the Denver Architecture Foundation)
The online-only “Y/OUR Denver” exhibition is rare in that it gives viewers a chance to appreciate two art forms as they exist in the city today. It’s half photography, half design.
It’s fully, and enthusiastically, a tribute to the Mile High City and the characteristics that make it unique: those one-of-a-kind buildings that form its personality, the special way our abundant sunshine lights up the atmosphere, the current events that define who we are at the moment.
The annual picture contest from which the exhibit is culled is open to all photographers, amateur and professional, and 225 shooters submitted work to the 2020 competition’s co-sponsors, the Denver Architecture Foundation and the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. This time around, 30 images made it past the final cut by juror Samantha Johnston and into the slideshows appearing through March 1 on both organizations’ websites.
The photo show takes on a special resonance right now. For one thing, it can be enjoyed from the safety of our living rooms where sentimental diversions like this are particularly welcome as folks stay home waiting for the coronavirus pandemic to pass.
But more importantly, it works as an homage to the great urban outdoors that we’ve all come to appreciate this year, as people have spent so much time walking, running, biking and connecting with others in open-air spaces. The photos here recognize the good looks that many of us savored lately in the city’s street corners and skylines, in its civic monoliths, parks, lakes, houses, office buildings and secret alleys.
And in its church buildings, which figure prominently in some of the most memorable photos in the exhibit.
This year’s Best in Show award went to Scott Wilson’s “Crossed Paths,” a monochromatic image that presents a view of the city that many of us have never contemplated. Front and center in Wilson’s picture are the cross-capped towers atop St. Cajetan’s Church on the Auraria campus. Looming in the background is the upper portion of Republic Plaza, Denver’s tallest building.
From an architecture standpoint, the photo captures a century of design history, juxtaposing the old-world formality of the 1929 Spanish Colonial-inspired church, with its cornices and ornate decorations, against the sleek and relentless geometry of the 56-story skyscraper, probably the city’s best example of Modernism, designed in 1984 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the country’s premier 20th-century architecture firm.
As a photo, it does what black-and-white images do best: bring our attention to the lines and shapes that come together to form the world around us while illuminating the way light and shadow influence our sense of vision.
This shot has the added advantage of relating a social history of Denver, as well. St. Cajetan’s was a cultural center for Denver’s Latino community until the area around it was swallowed up for the campus and local residents were displaced in the 1970s. The mixture of architectural styles — the way they intermingle and, indeed, the tension that exists between them — reflects the tensions between the city’s diverse factions as they have traded off dominance in the power structure. Wilson’s image gives all the players an equal and important role.
In that way, many of the photos capture the story of the city, even if the photographers didn’t intend it. Faina Gurevich’s “Reconstruction of Denver Art Museum” took the nod for Best Exterior photo. The image is split between the new circular addition to the Denver Art Museum complex, which is yet to open, and DAM’s Hamilton Building. The addition is covered in a series of shiny, concave glass windows that reflect the post-modern outline of the Denver Public Library across the street. Gurevich gives us three buildings in one powerful shot.
But she also records the progress of the important Civic Center neighborhood and the forward-looking growth of our most treasured institutions. On top of that, we get to take in three of the city’s most important structures: architect Michal Graves’ 1995 library, Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 titanium-clad Hamilton Building, and the brand new addition, which was designed by Denver’s own Fentress Architects, best-known for concocting the big-tent design of Denver International aAirport.
Similarly, David Hull’s image of Denver Central Market at dusk captures one of the city’s rediscovered alleys in the River North neighborhood. Old-school brick buildings are animated by freshly placed neon signs and public art. Embedded in the shot is the saga of a downtown district remembering its past while plunging into the prosperous era it enjoys today.
Other photos in this exhibit capture a more present, and pressing, tale. Laura Phelps Rogers’ image of the Colorado Education Association building on Colfax Avenue freezes the structure under siege from the racism-confronting protests that dominated the news in the summer of 2020. The place is boarded up to protect its glass from potential rioters and Black Lives Matter slogans adorn the sheets of plywood.
John Deffenbaugh adds another chapter to that drama. His “Say Her Name” shows the Colorado State Capitol covered in graffiti that spells out “Breonna Taylor,” commemorating the 26-year-old Louisville, Ky., woman who was shot by police in her own home in March, one of the incidents that preceded the social unrest.
The two images play a dual role, showing photography’s journalistic superpower of chronicling the day as well as its ability to make us stop for a moment and consume scenes and surroundings we often take for granted. The architecture is worth our attention in these photos, and the deeds they record are deserve remembering.
Juror Johnston has her eye on the big picture here, but also on the details, and this exhibit finds depth by focusing on small moments of architecture that make the city interesting in subtle ways. She’s allowed into the show Kevin Gilson’s tight shot of the facade of the concrete grid on the exterior the Sheraton Hotel (designed by I.M. Pei & Partners in 1958); Gary Reed’s close-up of the ornate, curved stairway railing of the Italian-inspired Equitable Building (designed by Andrews, Jacques and Rantoul in 1892); and Vicky Ballas’ tight framing of the roof lines of the Denver Convention Center (designed by Fentress in 2004).
There are grand edifices in the mix, like Robert Anderson’s nighttime take of Union Station, and humble abodes, like Peter Wayne’s picture of low-slung entry doors fronting six row homes in Five Points. The show has a keen balance of big and little, and of wide and tight.
And, in a sense, so does the city of Denver itself. “Y/OUR Denver” can play like a series of snapshots that a viewer can click through quickly. But it also has the potential to unfold slowly, like a rich and complicated biography of a place where the narrative continues. See it fast or see it slow.
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