Jennifer Goodland teaches Colorado history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and she truly loves this state. On an unpaid sabbatical from teaching, since April she's been trekking across Colorado with the goal of photographing every town in this state. After photographing close to 400 places, she's about halfway done with the actual pictures -- but her project is really just beginning.
She'll be sharing the photographs, and the stories behind them, at a show that opens tomorrow, and she says she's eager for ""people to come out to the photography show whether or not they want to buy something. I just want to talk to people about where they live, to be honest. For me, more than anything, this is sort of my love letter to the state. This is what I feel I can do even with my disability. I feel I can get people to take pride in where they come from. Even if they think they come from 'nowhere special,' what I tell my students is 'everywhere is somewhere special.' "
Goodland's gallery will be open starting at 3 p.m. on Saturday, August 11, at Leela European Cafe. Keep reading to learn more about Goodland, and to see a sneak preview of some of her photos.
See also: - Despite a tragic summer, Colorado is still the real sunshine state - 50 reasons Colorado is the best state - Five things to do at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge - How Denver native Matthew Batt turned a Salt Lake City crackhouse into his home
Westword: How did this idea to photograph every town in Colorado begin?
Jennifer Goodland: I teach Colorado history at Metro, and I always give my students an assignment where they have to research a Colorado town. They have to talk to somebody who lives in the town. Most students actually go to the town that they're doing a report on rather than going to the library and checking out a book. I thought of a really good way to extend that into my own life to learn from what my students have done with their assignments. I decided why not actually visit all of these places.
How do you choose the towns?
I'm doing every single town in Colorado. The census counts 195 places in Colorado. Legally there are 271 statutory towns or cities in Colorado, but I'm less selective. I believe I've visited about 400 towns so far and I'm about halfway done. I will visit anything that's legally a town or a city. I'll visit anything that the census designates as a town or a city or a place. But I will also go to places where there is still human settlement. I'll go to places that were ghost towns that were important to the region or to the county. And I'll just go to ghost towns that just look interesting. I am trying to basically get to every single town that I can physically get to.
What is involved in your research? How are you finding all of these towns?
I have a very large collection of antiquarian histories, and these are histories that are written usually by people that lived in these towns and are just interested in their town history. They're not trained historians, but what they write about is so interesting. I also have a very good network of people who work in museums and libraries and chambers of commerce that I've built up over the years, so I get a lot of tips from those people too. Some of the biggest sources are old maps. I will look at surveyor's maps or old road maps and if there was a town there in the 1960s or '70s or 1860s I'll take a drive there and see if there's anything.
This sounds like quite an expensive project. How are you being funded?
Well, by my husband. He's giving up all the money for this. I had to get a truck and a camper, not to mention all the photo equipment as well as everything else that goes into it. It's quite an expensive project. I know that I am eligible for a certain number of grants, but I decided if I have the money then I'd like to do that instead of taking away grant money that someone might need more.
What has been your biggest takeaway from this project?
I think it's that I am insanely, unreservedly in love with Colorado. Every town I visit I say to myself, "I love it here! I could live here!" The more people from Colorado I meet, it doesn't matter what side of the political or religious divide - none of that seems to matter -- I can talk to any stranger in the street and ask them questions about the place where they live and in five seconds I can get a sense for just how much they love the state too. It's incredible that everybody in Colorado cares about where they live and how much everybody in Colorado wants to share that with other people.
Even talking with tourists from all over the world. People from Australia and Germany love to take vacations to Colorado. It's one of their top vacation sites. One thing that all of them say is how friendly the people are here and how much we want to share the beauty of the state. What do you want your audience to gain from your project? I feel that the best of my photos and the best of Colorado is when you look at an area as a photographer that most people would not photograph and you see something beautiful when you think about the area. Sometimes it's a struggle. I went back and photographed the town that I grew up in, and I sympathize with that feeling that so many people in small towns have. That is the place where you live when you look around and there's no museums and no schools and you think this place is nowhere special. In fact, I have a lot of students who come from small towns and they say where they're from is "nowhere special." I grew up in one of those towns like that, so if it can be seen in a way that sparks somebody's interest in their own neighborhood or in their own city, that's the big piece that I want to get with this photography. [The show] is not going to be wall-to-wall mountains. It's going to be little towns, farmsteads, even sometimes a really unique perspective in order to spark that interest or connection. If somebody says, "Oh, you know come to think of it, my grandfather built this with his own two hands, maybe I should photograph that." That's what I want to do with these photos.
You certainly have a lot of stories to tell. Are you accompanying these photos with a book?
There's going to be a book that comes out in November, Big Year Colorado vol. 1. It's going to be about how we manufacture and build this environment in Colorado. I know that sounds terribly academic. In Colorado we settle in an area, and then once we've left it the town is still there because we have so much land out here. We don't feel the need to raise and rebuild. We just move on to a new place. It is incredibly hard to go anywhere and not see some remnant of a town. It's actually very hard to get a picture without power lines anywhere. I'm very interested in how much of Colorado should be defined by the pristine vista. Isn't the story of Colorado the story of the people who have lived here throughout the century and the evidence that we leave behind that we're here?
You've had some medical struggles recently. How has this project affected you?
I had a stroke nine years ago, and it left me with pseudobulbar affect. It damaged my prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that regulates things like emotions. I've been working with a neuropsychologist for the last year and a half to help me get ready for this project. Dr. Robucci. He put me on a medication regimen for that and I'm just amazed. The best way I've learned to describe [pseudobulbar affect] is when you see a toddler they're taking in all of these stimuli and they don't quite know how to handle it because their prefrontal cortex hasn't learned how to deal with all of the stimuli they're taking in. So periodically everybody's seen a toddler get really over-stimulated and break down and have a tantrum. There's no bargaining with it, there's no stopping it, you just have to let it go. Eventually the more times you get exposed and potentially overloaded, the easier it gets to handle really strong emotions. The one thing I found is that the photography allows me to express myself emotionally in a way that can be very physical, which is difficult for me without the camera. This is a really challenging kind of project, and I've had to learn how to do a lot of things that used to just send me into a melt down.
What has been you greatest challenge so far?
I think being away from my husband. He takes care of me and makes sure everything works out. When I'm having an attack he comforts me. Being away from him is a huge challenge, but I also know it's really important for my independence. He's been so supportive in keeping me on the road. If I have an attack I'll call him and I'll say, "I want to come home!" and he'll say, "Nope. You can't come home you have to stay out there and do your job."
There's definitely a certain amount of learning to interact with different cultures involved in this project. There's a lot of things that in the city would be totally bizarre and even criminal, but it's just part of life out there.
What's your history with Colorado? How did you grow to love it so much?
I actually moved out here when I was seven. I was born in Indiana, and my mother and I moved out here to look for jobs. Indiana was an economically crushed area, but I still have a lot of family there. We moved out here for a job and we just never left. Then a few years ago I was getting ready to go to grad school and I started driving around the state because I thought I would be going out of the country. I thought this may be one of the last times I get to see Colorado in a while, and the more I drove around the more it just clicked that I could never leave the state. I could never imagine myself actually living anywhere else.
Even when I'm inside my house I still miss [Colorado]. You always feel closer to Colorado when you're outdoors anyway, so I just have to go outside and take photos of my town to be able to make that connection to the state. I live in Lochbuie, Colorado, and I told some ladies at the gas station that I took some great pictures of the town and they said, "Really?!" From the outside maybe you wouldn't think that a good picture would be possible. People pass by and all they see are the standard suburban homes and the trailer park and the run down gas station. I moved out here three years ago and I fell in love with the place two years before I moved. I guess I see it in a particular way. I've got great pictures of storms rolling overhead, fields and just the entire town. Sometimes you don't find that love until later in life and you realize, "Wow, this is where I live." Anybody can look through a camera lens and finally start to see why people chose this place to settle. Most people haven't been shoved in that direction to look at their town in a different way, so it really doesn't occur to them to see something special in what they see every day.
Since I started this project, I think, "How could I ever be bored in Colorado?"
What's your history or training in photography?
I don't really have any formal training. I've done a lot of studies of some of the documentary photography that was done in the Great Depression. In 1908 to 1912 there was a photographer named Lewis Wickes Hine who went all around Colorado photographing child labor, particularly in agricultural fields, on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee. He really wanted to document the type of people that were relegated to these very low-status jobs -- picking beets, detasseling corn -- that were done by hand. There's this excellent perspective that Hines had, allowing the subjects such incredible dignity. He photographed them in front of these tar-paper shacks that they cobbled together seemingly at the last minute. All the kids would be wearing clothes made out of flour sacks, but his subjects always had such pride and dignity. Even three-year-olds who were picking beets had this sense of place and personhood. Then the Farm Security Administration took a lot of photos in the 1930s of the happier events, like a Palisade peach harvesting in the 1930s or 1940s. [These] and other photographs have been used primarily for documentary purposes.
I like Ansel Adams, I like people that take pictures of the pretty stuff, but there's something about that connection to people who settled the state. Especially the people who settled the state without getting any recognition for it. It's always the people who built the towns or cities, but I look at photographs of beet-diggers and those are the people I'm interested in. And I'm interested in connecting with the places where they lived.
There's so much difference in our state, but we're all attracted by the same thing. I'm definitely learning about exposure and aperture and I've become a decent technical photographer, but the part that you really can't fake is how you feel about your subject. Hopefully everything else falls into place. I teach people how to use photography in some of these towns because that is a barrier. They think that unless they have a really great grasp on photography that they can't take good photographs. I think what makes a good photograph is how you feel. There's nothing that's technically brilliant about Lewis Wickes Hine's photographs, it's just that they're so genuine and provide a lot of inspiration.
Do you have a favorite town after all of your travels?
Every single one. One that I keep visiting over and over again is Otis in Washington County. They have the best café ever; the best food made by humans anywhere in the world throughout time, actually. Hands down. I was on a road diet of nothing but breakfast burrito's and cheeseburgers because everyone has it in Colorado. So I sit down in Mom's Kitchen Café and they serve me the best coffee I've ever had. You wouldn't think coffee could be that special. No, this coffee is incredible. The breakfast burrito was the best thing I've ever had. I kept going back there when I was shooting that leg of the trip. I would drive an hour because the food was so incredible. They make everything fresh -- local produce, local meats, they make everything by hand. Apparently they've been in a couple of books. Everybody who stops by there is flabbergasted by how good the food is in this little agricultural town. They do comfort food, biscuits and gravy. The menu itself isn't anything special, it's the way that they cook and what they put into their food.
There's another town that I've been documenting for the past few years that's also one of my favorites. It's called Keota, and allegedly it's Pawnee for "the fire has gone out." A lot of people refer to it as a ghost town, but it's definitely not a ghost town. There's a family up there who sells eggs and great goat cheese. I think there are about three families that live up there and it used to be a bustling place before the Great Depression. In fact, Keota plays a really big part in the new History Colorado Center. I've been talking of Keota for years and years and years, so I like to think that's why they decided to put it in there. There are lots of buildings to photograph, and there's this cemetery. Back at the turn of the century it was very hard for a lot of these towns along railroad spurs, like Keota used to be, to get certain supplies. Things like tombstones because they are very heavy and transporting them might be more money and trouble than it's worth. So one of the things they did to make headstones was to pour concrete into flour sacks, burlap bags. When it hardens, they peel away the burlap bag, and BOOM, it's a headstone and you can write on it. You can still see the little grains of the burlap and the seams of the bag they used to make it on the concrete after all these years. I just think, how ingenious is that?
What's one town with an interesting history? There was a town called Beloit south of I-70. I was never able to track it down in literature. It was as if it never existed except in stories people told. I finally went out to where one map from the 1920s said it would be, and of course there's nothing there. So this farmer comes barreling down the road in his truck and he pulls over to ask me how my day's going, which happens a lot out there, and I said, "I'm looking for this town called Beloit." He knew where it was and he actually led me to where he had put up a marker along with other people who had lived in Beloit to commemorate the cemetery there, which is the only remnant of the town. He told me a lot of times farmers will plow over abandoned buildings or town sites because they attract squatters and meth labs. Not only that, but they need to use that farmland. It's not that they have a disrespect for history, it's just logistical issues.
What sorts of crazy things have you encountered on your travels?
The very first day of shooting, I went up with my left arm about shoulder-deep inside a cow. I did 4-H a lot as a kid, so I already knew my way around a ranch. The very first day of shooting I was taking pictures of this place's cattle for market and their sheep. They were really nice and excited to be part of the project. After they were done I was driving by their pasture, and I noticed a cow that had just given birth that had a collapsed uterus. I happened to know how to fix it. Whenever you are photographing a ranch or a farm during breeding or branding season you are expected to chip in if you know how. So I ended up replacing this uterus very delicately in the cow.
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I had somebody point a rifle into my face. It was more of a friendly gesture than anything else. There are a lot of people who settle in Colorado because they just want to be left alone. Sometimes they wonder why you're approaching their property. Especially if you're in a remote area, they assume you have no business being there. They think you're burying a body or going to poach or something like that. I was warned beforehand by his neighbors down the road that he tends to greet visitors with a leveled rifle and I shouldn't take it personally. He turned out to be very friendly.