36 Views of the Lions Lair - Gary Isaacs

Life Outside The Lair

Eric G. Nord

From its creation in the mid 1820's, Katsushika Hokusai's, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, has delighted and inspired artists and art lovers throughout the world. In the two centuries since, the iconic series of woodblock prints has spawned a number of variations and spin-offs, including the equally iconic, 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower, by Henri Riviere, from 1902. However, I would be hard-pressed to identify another similar series which referentially embodies the spirit of the original, while cleverly recontextualizing its intent, as uniquely and eloquently as Gary Isaacs' current photography exhibition, 36 View of the Lion's Lair. 

Isaacs' success with his homage to this Denver dive bar and music venue, via this popular vehicle, stems primarily from his decision to employ Hokusai's concept as a technical excercise, providing him with a set of specific restrictions, within which he is able to tap a wealth of seemingly limitless possibility. Similar to the Mount Fuji series, Isaacs has chosen a particular subject — in this case, the Lion's Lair — to anchor each image within a relational framework, while including a wide range of other subjects, that upon first viewing might seem ancillary. However, as one delves into the details of each photograph, it quickly becomes evident that the subtle little idiocyncracies one discovers in each image are the true meat of the visual meal the artist is serving up, presented upon the familiar template of the Lion's Lair facade.

Like many of the businesses which popluate Denver's Colfax Avenue, infamously referred to as "the longest, wickedest street in America," the Lion's Lair boasts a facade that is evocative of a bygone era, yet feels oddly timeless as a result of its longevity. This quility has allowed Isaacs to create a body of work which seems to have been accumulated over a span of several decades, but in reality was produced over just the past six or seven years. This manipulation of time powerfully serves the entire exhibition and accompanying special edition photography book, by emphasizing the history of the Lion's Lair and it's long-lived impact upon the culture of Colfax Avenue. Time is blurred, and while a photograph may only appear to be historical, the nostalgia it evokes reinforces the true history of the building.

For me, the most significant impact of Isaacs' work comes from the wit and contradiction he has achieved in taking the "36 views" series and applying it to the mundane. Hokusai, and even Riviere, chose subject matter that was majestic - a snow-capped mountain peak, and a colossal feat of engineering. Their work explored the various aspects of life that were occurring around those important landmarks. Yet, the human-scale settings and various details seem secondary to the primary subject. Isaacs has similarly explored the various aspects of life occurring around the Lion's Lair. And while the building most certainly holds special meaning to a number of people, its existence is, more often than not, taken for granted by those who drive or walk by it on a daily basis. Isaacs provokes us to not only take notice of it, to consciously reflect on its place within Denver's culture, but to also notice and acknowledge the intimate and insignificant moments of life that are occurring around it. These are moments that we may miss or be unaware of as we pass by. Isaacs discovers their power, their poignancy, their timeless beauty.

The Dive Bar at the End of the World

Eric R. Dallimore

36 Views of the Lions Lair is just a much a portrait of Colfax as it is an homage to the greatest of Denver rock and roll dive bars. Gary Isaacs uses his adapted pre WWII 16mm lens to capture more than just bold and striking images of a favorite haunt in Denver, he captures all of the life that jostles quickly by in front of it. In the gallery, there isn’t one image of the interior of the Lair; no drunken hobos, no ladies chatting up the boys, no fist fights or laughter. It’s all about the architecture of the façade of the Lions Lair resting peacefully as the backdrop to the bustling breath of city life out front. In the book you will find one solo image of the interior of the lair, but that’s because in the corner of the image you can see the outside world.  There she sits in every image, proud and stoic with stripes of blue and gold across the roofline as life passes by on the infamous Colfax Avenue. That’s what this show is all about, Colfax and the Lions Lair, the Lions Lair and Colfax. This is street photography at its finest for Gary recognizes all of the extraordinary and beauty in the subtle motions of what passes before his eyes. These moments of exquisite and singular allure reveal themselves because Gary has put himself in the right situation for it to happen…right in front of the Lions Lair. Those citizens who were caught by Gary’s lens portray every walk of life, just as every type of person can be found drinking at the Lair (It has been creditably rumored that Governor John Hickenlooper even hangs out here).

Gary had 12 lanes of energy passing in between himself and the Lions Lair to steal images from: two lanes of people walking by on the sidewalk in front of the Lair, a parking lane, two traffic lanes heading east, one turning lane in the center, two more lanes heading west, another parking lane, and finally two more lanes for pedestrians heading up and down Colfax right in front of Gary’s favorite position (grab a pencil and draw a map, it will make sense). From these 12 intersecting lines of motion Gary sat patiently over 6 years to capture a fleeting composition.

36 Views of the Lions Lair will live on; it is a timeless collection of photographs that will never lose its power. They are also timeless in the sense that you cannot tell when these images were shot; this is Gary’s great trick. Sure, there may be one or two images with a smart car or some modern clothes in it, but there are also beautiful young afros and old middy haircuts, 50’s + 60’s era Cadillac’s, and 80’s Bonneville low-riders with gold rims. When you combine these images with Gary’s oftentimes distressed lens effects you aren’t sure what era these were shot in. Each image also has its own unique treatment to emphasis the power of the subject presented. Most photographers would never be so bold or multi-faceted to present so many styles in one art exhibition. Most photographers find a style and stick to it, sometimes for a lifetime. Gary’s work does this also, but by being honest to each image by employing a variety of hues, saturations, de-saturations, black and white, or x-ray manipulations to best convey the mood and message in each image.

Six years is a very long time to work on a single project and I salute Gary for his passion and dedication. When he presented this concept to me I thought it was the greatest honor. When we hung the show up and six years of dedication finally came to fruition, I saw Gary light up and become a playful child again. His smile was contagious and his friends and fans came out in droves to support and see his vision. This is what an art project does to artists, it can pull us in so deep for so many moons, but when we are finally finished and show it to the world, it becomes this entity, this beautiful child that we nurtured and fought for and then it is there for the rest of the world to experience, finally and forever.