You can find art all over Denver — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.
Dane "Colfax" Stephenson – also known as the "Tiny People Photography" guy – is a Colorado native, and it shows in his award-winning photography, which stages tiny figures in iconic locations, including along Colfax Avenue.
Stephenson got his bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he studied communications and visual arts, but had a hard time finding a job as a commercial artist after he graduated. “Photoshop and Illustrator were emerging, and I was an old-school artist. I didn’t have that training,” he explains. The artist tried his hand at several things before falling into a career as a paralegal. In 2010, though, he found the motivation he needed to get back to his fine-art roots.
Stephenson took one of Art.com’s America’s Next Master Photographer awards for a piece from his pet photography collection. “That was a big deal,” he says, noting that it gave him an incentive to go back to school and get serious about photography. Since then, Stephenson has won first- and second-place ribbons at the Denver County Fair for narrative and editorial photography, and received an honorable mention at Kanon Collective's Dark Heart show in February. His work has been exhibited in galleries in Denver, Los Angeles and Portland.
“I love traveling,” Stephenson says. “Street photography, for me, is especially great in different cities, where you’re not familiar with anything. Everything’s fresh, and your eye catches a lot of things.”
Stephenson likes to focus his lens on irony, humor and “unusual situations,” he says. And despite his interest in other cities, the most unusual situations he’s encountered were right here in Denver, on Colfax Avenue. In 2012. Stephenson began working on his master’s thesis, and, he recalls, “My wife suggested I go down to Colfax. It was – and still is – going through a lot of gentrification.”
Stephenson drove up and down the 26-mile-long street, often taking pictures from his car for a project he called “Defend Colfax.” But his thesis was rejected for being unfocused, and school officials also didn’t like the fact that Stephenson had taken pictures while driving.
“I ended up having to switch gears,” he says, and in the fall of 2012, he took a class that dealt with architecture in photography. “I learned about this miniature-people photography style from a photographer in England called Slinkachu, who uses HO-scale figures in his street photography around the world."
Stephenson decided to stage O-scale people – the inch-tall variety used with model railroads – in various positions around Denver.
“I started at Elitch Gardens and shot black and white so they’d seem like real people — just for a moment,” explains Stephenson.
His teacher loved this idea, and so Stephenson decided to revisit Colfax from the perspective of the O-scale people. “My point was: Colfax is changing; let’s put a completely different perspective on it,” he recalls.
"Tiny People, Big Colfax" was accepted, and Stephenson earned an MFA in fine-art photography in 2014 from the Academy of Art University. “I learned a lot about Colfax, and I ended up buying a lot of these little characters,” Stephenson says.
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He now has thousands of tiny people, and they haven't stopped traveling and posing. Stephenson has continued working with O- and HO-scale people, and has segued into color photography. “They’re really good to use in food,” he notes.
Last year Stephenson did a series called 365 Days of Tiny People Photography, staging a new photograph every day of the year. “That one was a challenge to myself,” he says, adding that such an experiment “pushes your creativity.”
Stephenson is currently working on a series called Tiny People, Big City that involves taking O-scale people to other cities and photographing them before iconic architecture. He’s also started a Tiny People, Big Cannabis series. “I think the tiny people would do really well with the marketing of the cannabis industry,” Stephenson says.
He's now working on a second master's in music production and sound design, in the hopes that it will allow him to “combine all of my talents into one cohesive unit,” Stephenson notes.
Stephenson is a member of Valkarie Fine Art Gallery and 40 West Arts District, and showed at Westword's Artopia in 2014. For more information on his latest work, visit his Facebook page.