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West Colfax Sketches

By Robert Autobee

Since photography’s beginnings, amateurs and professionals alike frequently have offered the following wish as their forefinger tapped the shutter button: “I hope I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Regardless if the subject is an endangered Orange-Bellied Parrot clutching a tree limb, or humanity coping in the face of disaster, a photographer’s answered prayer is to capture a single moment that will last an eternity.

Cataloguing photographs of West Colfax Avenue from the late 19th century to today is similar to opening an oversized family scrapbook only to find missing images of important moments. An excellent example of a lost opportunity involves the legendary photographer William Henry Jackson. Early in his career, Jackson established a photography studio in Omaha in 1867. A few years later, Ferdinand Hayden of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories contracted with Jackson on a project unlike any other in the nation’s history. From 1870 to 1878, Jackson’s mission was to capture the wonders of Yellowstone, Mesa Verde, and other geologic glories of the American West.

Positioned behind his large format camera, Jackson also photographed the foothills in and around Golden. The South Golden Road (later West Colfax) wasn’t even a trail in the distance during the 1870s. The Hogback and the foothills dominate his pictures. Nearly a century-and-a-half later, hours of gazing of Jackson’s prints can only leave the viewer with tired eyes and a nagging doubt if that barely visible scratch in the background is really today’s Avenue.

There is no one old photo that has come down to us that researchers and historians identify as the earliest image of West Colfax. We can thank Jefferson County’s well-to-do farmers and orchardists for the earliest photographic documentation remaining of West Colfax. By the early 20th century, as Eastman-Kodak and other manufacturers sold cameras that the average man or woman could afford. The subject matter for the earliest Brownie owners often involved the family gathered in front of the house. The number of the “well-to-do” during West Colfax’s earliest decade was limited at best. It stands to reason these images of proper Victorian West Colfaxians are few in number.

The rise in automobile ownership that resulted from mass production played a significant role in the changing West Colfax from pastoral to commercial. And rise in camera ownership that resulted from smaller, lighter-weight cameras, and commercial film developing, played a significant role in the number of pictures taken from the 1920s forward.  In 1930, to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, the Eastman Kodak Company gave away over 500,000 cameras similar to its Hawk Eye No. 2 model. The offer was open only to children who turned 12 in 1930. It was a token of Kodak’s appreciation to the grandparents and parents who had helped develop amateur “picture-taking.” Kodak told parents that these cameras would increase their child’s appreciation of beautiful things and create lasting records. It was a gift that would keep giving. Unlike William Henry Jackson, the 12-year-old recipients of these cameras were not required to lug heavy equipment with the help of a pack mule or deal with chemicals in a dark room.

Picture postcards are an excellent source of what the buildings and business along the Avenue looked like before World War II. In a reversal of the cozy family photos of a generation previous, the penny postcard images are devoid of people. Postcard photographers were nameless “jobbers” who lived and worked in the cities where they shot pictures. The only indication of life were the De Sotos and Plymouths parked discreetly at the edges of each building. These men (and they were nearly all men in this line of work) gave us a record of West Colfax’s earliest motels and restaurants with a view of the Avenue that valued promotion over art.

There is one additional gap in the photographic record worth mentioning. After World War II, West Colfax expanded on its reputation as the tourist’s gateway to a Rocky Mountain vacation. Businesses installed gaudy neon signs to distract drivers long enough for them to stop their cars and get out and shop. Photos of some of the more memorable neon displays – the Fordland sign and Leon “The Neon” Giraffe in front of Sachs Furniture – are difficult to find. Those interested in learning more about metro Denver’s significant neon legacy must rely on scratchy, overdeveloped images of display ads in microfilmed copies of the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Lakewood Sentinel.

It is only within the past decade that the current generation of photographers have found in the remaining neon signs and the occupied and abandoned buildings along West Colfax some aesthetic inspiration. The images on Corky Scholl’s Save Our Signs website, and Barbara Gal’s photographs, demonstrate the poignancy of a tired building or a glowing neon display that has seen better days. And sometimes the photo leads to other art. Al Orahood creates photo real paintings using photos often taken by his wife, Kristin.

Photography is an art. The great photographers are masters of light and composition. But, even the best will admit that the great photos are the result of being at the right place at the right time.

Not everyone is an artist. However, most of us who ever shot a picture have at least one right-place-and-right-time moment that creates a lasting record. We ask Neighborhood Gazette readers to contact us and let us know about their photographs of West Colfax over the past century. A discovery of lost images would fill many of the gaps in West Colfax’s history.

Contact Robert Autobee at Ana.inquiries@gmail.com if you have an unusual image from West Colfax’s past.