Last year, Colorado photographer John Fielder published Colorado: 1870-2000, wherein he re-created several score of William Henry Jackson's 19th-century photographs by locating the photographer's point of view and rephotographing the same scene. It's a fascinating document of change, and it promises to become the all-time regional best seller -- a coffee-table book that people actually read and enjoy.
Too bad the amiable Fielder couldn't copyright his idea; if so, he'd be collecting royalties from photographer Molly van Wagner, an intern at the Pioneers Museum. Using photographs from the archives of the museum, van Wagner rephotographed several dozen locations in the Pikes Peak Region from the same vantage point as that of the earlier photographer.
Titled Double Vision: A Century of Change in the Pikes Peak Region, it's a fascinating show, one which might have been derisively subtitled "A Century of Progress?"
That's because much of what it shows is so distressing. To see, for example, a picture of the demolished second Antlers Hotel cheek to jowl with today's dismal building is a devastating indictment of the coarse boosterism of the city's recent past.
Other pairings are equally scathing; compare, for example, the romantic and beautiful Victorian structure, complete with soaring clocktower, that once housed Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer High School), with the drearily functional Burnham Hoyt-designed modernist pile of bricks that replaced it. It's hard to imagine going to high school in a building as outrageously magnificent as the original CSHS must have been; I can tell you from personal experience that its successor was (and, I suspect, still is) sterile, depressing and cheerless.
Fortunately, the show does much more than catalog the vandalized past. There are dozens of pairings that amplify our understanding of both past and present.
Take, for example, the picture of the Colorado Avenue viaduct, which spanned Monument Creek and the Denver and Rio Grande railroad tracks at the turn of the twentieth century, paired with today's Colorado Avenue Bridge. The original bridge, designed for pedestrians and horse-drawn traffic, made generous provision for the former; the new bridge squeezes bicycles and pedestrians into narrow strips on either side. In the distance, the raw heaps of tailings from the mills along Fountain Creek, which once processed gold ore from Cripple Creek, are clearly visible. It's a reminder that, at the same time our forefathers were building magnificent downtown buildings, they were casually despoiling the environment of the working-class West Side.
Or look at H.W. Standley's picture of a group of young men, clearly working-class, enjoying a noisy lunch in Acacia Park, c. 1925. Van Wagner has paired this with an equally warm and sympathetic picture of a group of kids from Palmer hanging out in Acacia. It makes you realize that, despite the city's never-ending efforts to sanitize our city's public square with fountains, playgrounds and shuffleboard courts, Acacia Park has always been a little scruffy, a little exciting and utterly democratic. May it always be so!
Compositionally, it's difficult to compare the modern photographs with their vintage counterparts. The original shooters chose what was then the most effective vantage point; van Wagner was constrained by their choice, regardless of subsequent visual clutter such as traffic lights and street signs. Technically, the comparisons are easy and unexpected; the older photographs are clearly superior to their modern counterparts. They're almost without exception more sharply focused, have greater depth of field, and better balance between background and foreground. This isn't because van Wagner is an indifferent photographer; it's because the antiquated, clumsy and demanding equipment that photographers were forced to use a century ago could, in skilled hands, produce extraordinary images.
And make no mistake; the photographers here represented, Standley, William Hook and William H. Jackson, were brilliantly talented. Jackson is universally recognized as one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century, and the Pioneers Museum has exhibited William Hook's charming views of 19th-century Manitou Springs. But Standley's streetscapes from the '20s are virtually unknown. Too bad; as the exhibition notes point out, his photographs are beautifully executed and vividly alive.
Take, for example, his shot of a couple of prosperous young businessmen strolling down Pikes Peak Avenue around 1925, their topcoats swirling in the breeze. The street is lined with Model T Fords, a dozen storefronts peddle their wares in a blizzard of signs; it's a vivid image of prosperity, optimism and happiness.
By contrast, today's avenue seems flat and characterless, lined with dull buildings, punctuated by parking lots. Yet this is, after all, a sunny and optimistic time; maybe a shot of the food court at the Citadel, or of crowds pouring into Tinseltown, would better convey the happy consumerism of our age.
Wandering through the exhibition, I ran into Jim Lucas, spouse Carol, and sister Pam. The Lucas family is long resident here; Jim's great-grandfather started the family business on Tejon Street, Lucas Sporting Goods, over a century ago. Times change; they closed their doors a few years ago. Jim was less than enchanted with the changes documented by the exhibition; as he said, "I liked it the way it was!" That seemed to express the sentiments of most everyone at the show that afternoon, so it occurred to me to look for evidence of improvement, if any could be found.
Looking down Lake Avenue from the Broadmoor, the view has definitely changed for the better. Saplings have become century-old maples and elms, and the hotel's gardens are, if anything, even more carefully tended. Chalk one up for progess. And speaking of chalk, compare the turn-of-the-century billiard parlor that once occupied space at 8 East Pikes Peak with its modern counterpart at virtually the same location. Nicer tables a century ago -- they look like top-of-the line Brunswicks, no doubt gleaming with polished mahogany. But today's cheerful, light-filled, emphatically coed establishment on Phantom Canyon's second floor beats yesterday's gloomy dive in every other category.
Farther afield, the views around Cripple Creek are equally illuminating. A photograph of the town of Anaconda shows several hundred frame structures at the foot of a hill covered with mine tailings, and practically bare of trees. A century later, Anaconda has literally vanished, the forest has regenerated, and even the mine tailings have faded into the natural landscape.
Happily, Cripple Creek escaped Anaconda's fate. The substantial brick structures that lined Bennett Avenue a century ago are still there, and the streets are still thronged with gamblers, albeit of a different sort. Preservationists may complain that nothing remains of the original buildings but their facades, but it's nothing short of miraculous that Cripple Creek's Victorian streetscape is largely unchanged.
It's tempting to look at these pairings, mourn the graceful past and shake our heads at the dismal present. But it would have been interesting if van Wagner had included a dozen shots of present-day life in our city, without reference to a historic counterpart. What about the Friday night crowd at the Ritz, or Gary Conover's graceful new building at Colorado and Weber, or the C.C. woman's soccer team, or Bob Dylan at the World Arena, or even George W. Bush having his last drink at the Broadmoor a few years back? Now that'd give a richer, more accurate picture of the texture of life in Colorado Springs six-score years after its founding, one that might lead an unbiased observer to conclude that today's sprawling burg is a worthy successor to yesterday's glories.