At 81, John Suhay's hands are cracked, seamed and weathered, stained with the labor of half a century. He has a steelworker's powerfully muscled body, and although he spent a dozen years in the mills, that was not to be his life's work.
Suhay has been a photographer for 50 years. His hands are marked by decades in the darkroom, by working with the harsh chemicals once used to fix and develop black-and-white film.
Enter Jina Pierce, the fine arts curator at Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. She is curious, inquisitive, even a little nosy. She was fascinated by the craggy, reserved Suhay, the Arts Center's longtime resident photographer, who, thanks to a simple, mutually beneficial deal, maintains a darkroom there. Suhay gets a free studio; the Center gets free photographic services.
As far as Pierce knew, Suhay was just another commercial photographer, albeit one who had been taking pictures in Pueblo for decades. Hanging out in his studio one day, she asked to see some of his earlier prints; maybe there'd be some fun period pieces, or some interesting historical ephemera.
What she found was an astonishing archive of more than 200,000 images, most created in and around Pueblo over the last half century. Some was the routine commercial work that had supported Suhay since he became a full-time photographer in 1964.
But much of it was anything but routine. For decades, Suhay has roamed the streets of Pueblo with his camera, documenting the life of the city. Nothing seems to have escaped him -- the homeless man asleep in the park, a pair of teenage girls in a fistfight, the corndog vendor at the State Fair, a drag show in the '70s. Freed from commercial restraints, Suhay's photographs are rough, edgy, immediate -- and powerful.
At first, Pierce didn't quite believe her eyes. Could the work be this good? Was it possible that a major artist had been working in obscurity in Pueblo, Colo., literally hiding in plain sight inside the Arts Center's walls? Suhay let her take a few dozen prints home, and she pinned them up on her bathroom wall.
A few weeks later, Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, former presidential candidate, artist, provocateur, happened to be at Pierce's house for a post-concert party. Biafra went to the bathroom -- and stayed there for 40 minutes. He emerged astonished. Who did these? Where is he? Biafra informed Pierce that he would remain in Pueblo for an extra day to meet Suhay. He wanted to buy some prints.
Biafra, a Boulder native now living in San Francisco, was the first official member of the John Suhay fan club. As word got out, others quickly followed: local photographers like Rodney Wood and Carol Dass, gallery owner/photographer Elaine Bean, and nationally renowned photographer Andrea Modica.
In person, Suhay is a formidable presence and retains the taut, thickly muscled body of the steelworker he once was. Originally from Pittsburgh, of Slovenian descent, he first passed through Pueblo in 1943, on a troop train bound for California.
"That train was blacked out -- the Japs had spies everywhere, maybe even Pueblo," Suhay said. "But they opened it up in the mountains, and I looked out, and I thought: Wow!"
So in 1955, he moved to Pueblo, and went to work at CF&I Steel Mill.
And he took pictures, just as he had since he got his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, in 1938. Suhay's friends made fun of him: "Look at that big guy, playing with that black box." But he kept on, inspired by the then-unknown picture makers whose brilliant work filled the pages of Life -- Henri Cartier-Bresson, Capra, Stephen Deutch. Suhay upgraded; he got a secondhand Rolleiflex and sold a picture to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- for all of $3.
Married, with two kids, photography couldn't yet pay the rent. But he kept at it, entering contests, doing freelance work, selling shots to the Denver Post -- and, in 1964, finally he caught a break.
The Pueblo Service League hired Suhay to create a photographic essay of upper-middle-class life in Pueblo, to be used to persuade the wives of corporate executives that Pueblo would be a great place to which to relocate. Sounds like a ludicrous idea, but it allowed him to quit the mills and take pictures full time.
"What they wanted was so corny -- but hell, man, I was in the newspaper!" Suhay said. "I was being noticed -- I have an ego. I seen parties that I never imagined. These were country club women -- I couldn't even spell 'country club.'"
The photo essay was, as Suhay had anticipated, bland and inoffensive. But given the opportunity, he also made some strange and wonderful shots, of naive "country club" beauties posed awkwardly before the smoldering slag heaps of CF&I's dark mills. Predictably, those shots never made the final brochure.
But Suhay was now a full-time commercial photographer, with plenty of business to keep him afloat and plenty of time to shoot for himself. And on his own time, he created series after series, tens of thousands of images. It's all still there in his studio, drawer after drawer of file cabinets, cataloged and cross-cataloged, by theme, by subject.
Abandonment: thousands of images of abandoned buildings across the state, most taken in the late '60s. Historic Pueblo: buildings, signs, streets. Nature: Colorado's wild places, with dozens of subcategories. And, best of all, Candid Miscellaneous: the lives of a thousand Puebloans, seen through John Suhay's unsparing, compassionate eye.
It's an amazing archive, but it's not entirely unique. As Bean of Phototroph Gallery in Colorado Springs points out, "All over the West, in all these little towns, there were Main Street photographers, commercial guys, who spent time just photographing their environment -- and a lot of it is wonderful work." And what does Bean think of Suhay? "He's got the eye!"
Suhay has never taken a photography class or had any formal instruction. "No, I just looked at magazines ... belonged to a camera club, and listened to all that stuff -- what a bunch of bullshit!"
So how does he make photographs, how does he decide where/what to shoot? "I try to see instantly, right now," he said. "You're not seeing the whole world, you're seeing little bits of it. I hope that before I'm done, I can shut my mind out -- no thought, just vision."
Suhay's studio includes a modern, fully equipped darkroom, where he prints his work. He won't let anyone else touch his negatives and, as his prints make clear, he's an adequate technician, self-taught or not. "I don't print like Ansel [Adams], but I can make a print exactly like I want it."
Prodded a little by Pierce, Suhay pores over scores of prints. His visual memory is phenomenal: "Now that one there, that's over by the Mineral Palace in 1970. ... And that's what they called 'Stone City'; it's all gone now, bunch of ruins where Fort Carson is. ... And that [the image of a woman and a child seated on a tree limb near a cow's decaying carcass], well, we were up that creek -- that's my wife and daughter -- and here's this skeleton and I says, 'go sit on that branch like you lost your best cow and we'll make a picture.' "
And what a picture it is.
"[Suhay] has an amazing sense of constructing a picture," said Modica, the nationally renowned photographer from Colorado Springs. "This is a great picture -- no little fraction of the image is irrelevant.
"People go to school to learn how to do this, and he somehow knows how to do it."
Placing cropped and uncropped versions of another Suhay image on the table, Modica noted that the uncropped photograph -- swirling, complex, vibrant -- is much richer and more satisfying than the cropped image. In other words, in Modica's opinion Suhay's first takes are far superior to any subsequent manipulation.
Suhay might disagree. For him, a photograph is in fact a means of conveying information. "I see, I document. I'm not an artist," he said brusquely. A minute later, ruminatively, "I know there's ghosts out there watching me photograph."
Turning to the striking image of a broken doll's head lying in the dirt before a ruined building, Modica remarked, "There's a physicality about his pictures; it goes beyond what's easy. He had to lie down in the dirt to get this -- and then frame it, conceive it. Nobody likes to do that -- we see the world standing up, looking up or down."
In January, Suhay will finally begin to get the recognition that he so deserves. For the first time in many years, the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center's main gallery will be devoted to the work of a single artist -- Pueblo's Suhay. And here in Colorado Springs, Phototroph Gallery, on the city's West Side, will mount an exhibition devoted to his "Industrial" series, a lyrical remembrance of Pueblo's steel mills in their heyday.
"We could do 10 separate shows, there's so much," said the Sangre de Cristo's Pierce. Having now spent so many days and weeks looking at Suhay's work, here's how she describes it: "It's about humanity, about the extremes of human emotion. You feel like you're looking at your own history. People recognize themselves, their friends. It's about Pueblo, but it speaks to the entire nation."
And what does Suhay see, looking back at his life's work? The answers are rambling, indirect, even a little evasive. "I got tired of going to that State Fair and making the pig's ears stick straight up. And portraits -- making people smile?"
That makes him remember a funny story: "There was a bank president, wouldn't crack a grin, [I] finally asked him if he wanted a double shot of Jack-boy -- he lit up!"
And what inspires him now? "I don't know, it just grabs me," he said. "I'm out seeing, early in the morning, nobody's around, nobody's bossing me, I'm free. I can sit down in my back yard with a 12-pack, if that's what I want."
OK, John, but what's your legacy?
"Well," Suhay offers tentatively, "maybe the pictures I made of the city helped people to live better."
But he's not very interested in his legacy. He'd much rather talk about his latest project, traveling through rural Colorado, searching out and photographing cemetery folk art. It's not always easy, though. "Snakes and dopeheads are a problem in cemeteries."
Later, Maggie Divelbiss, the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center's longtime director, smiles affectionately as she talks about Suhay. "You know, we put a refrigerator in that darkroom so he could store his film, but I think he keeps his beer there."
And what, in Divelbiss' opinion, is John's legacy? She doesn't hesitate:
"John is Pueblo -- he's the heart and historian of our community."