You never saw John Schoenwalter without a camera. He was usually wearing a shy smile, too, and sometimes a Hawaiian shirt. He was a familiar figure around the Westword offices in the '80s, when he shot many of our photographs. But he was also a very familiar sight around town, where he captured a Denver that was already changing, if not as fast as it is today.
Schoenwalter passed away earlier this month; there will be a memorial in his honor at 1 p.m. Sunday, October 27, at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street.
Local historian Phil Goodstein wrote this obituary of Schoenwalter:
The city’s bohemian photographer, John Schoenwalter died on October 8, 2019. A man of many passions and great artistic and linguistic skills, he was something of alternative Denver’s man with a camera. He caught on film the changing city, particularly Capitol Hill. In the process, he was frequently on the scene as the community evolved, capturing images of the early Capitol Hill People’s Fair while he shot Denver’s statuary, buildings and wildlife. For a while, a stint with the Colorado Statesman opened the way for him to photograph the area’s leading politicians. On the scene when something happened, among his iconic shots was President Bill Clinton welcoming Pope John Paul to Denver in 1997.
John Schoenwalter was born in New York on November 13, 1942, to an affluent, cultured German-Jewish family who had fled the Nazis. He grew up in a bilingual household in Queens, speaking German and English. Hebrew was soon part of the mix. So was Spanish. Yiddish, in contrast, sometimes confused him.
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Living in an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood, he received a vigorous Orthodox education. Eventually, this included attendance at Yeshiva University, the foremost American institution of higher learning for Modern Orthodoxy. While eventually John was non-observant, his religion was always part of his life. For years, he was ready to advise one and all about Hebrew, helping pronounce and translate it for non-Jews. Included was occasionally drawing and writing Hebrew inscriptions for works of public art.
In part, this reflected his training as an artist. He built on that skill, arriving in Aspen in the 1970s, where he ran an art gallery. Never quite successful there, he relocated to Denver, settling on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood filled with many who were building on their experiences as hippies. For some years, he lived in a distinctive apartment house, the Artists in Action Building, 1450 Logan Street, a place filled with bohemians. In the process, he rapidly learned photography. Through the 1980s, he was a freelancer for a wide variety of local newspapers, especially Westword. All the while, he had an eye for what was going on around him, shooting crucial images of the ever-liquid world of Colfax.
Photos of birds were another of John’s passions. He was frequently in the parks and near the Platte River, trying to get the right image. Some of his shots landed up as postcards. Simultaneously, he was always ready to share his great skills with others, helping teach students about the nature of art and photography. In a word, he was part and parcel of the wide-ranging presence of the different faces and characters of the Mile High City.