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Randall Paetzold's The One Hour Motel photo series celebrates vintage Colfax

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You may have seen Randall Paetzold's work and just not know it. "I shoot a lot of food photography, so this is really off-kilter for me -- some of my recent clients have been Root Down, Yours Truly, Cupcake, City, O' City and WaterCourse Foods," says the photographer. But when Paetzold's The One Hour Motel show opens tonight at Bardo's, a dim light will shine on his personal fascination with the beauty, mystery and scandalous behavior behind the closed doors of motels along Denver's most infamous strip: Colfax Avenue. See also: - Vintage nude photo show brings back the work of John B. Post (NSFW) - Denver Book Fair is closing, and it has some great finds...of the naked lady variety - Best of Denver 2012: Bardo CoffeeHouse, Best Coffeehouse for Conversation "I also do a lot of portraits and family photography -- those pay the bills," Paetzold says. "But on the side, I love to shoot everything. I've only been shooting for three years, but I've been a graphic designer for thirteen and I've been using photography in my work that whole time."

Like many great photographers, Paetzold never really considered himself to be a photographer in the first place; it was just part of the work process. And after a decade looking through the lens as part of his graphic design business, three years ago he really began focusing on photography. Then something happened that accelerated his desire to push his creative work out into the world.

"Nine months ago I almost died, which is a really fun story," the photographer says, with a laugh. During a Thanksgiving meal with friends, Paetzold was overtaken by a stomachache. Excusing himself from the table, he found himself alone in the bathroom, vomiting massive amounts of blood. Then Paetzold cleaned himself up, went back to dinner and stayed quiet about the incident.

"I thought, I'm a guy. I can fix this. I'm just not going to tell anybody," says Paetzold. Later that evening, though, it happened again, and he ended up in the hospital. "Years of being a bartender, years of being in the restaurant industry, smoking and drinking and living the way I wanted to" were the cause of heartburn that had eventually burned through his esophagus, which was torn open by the vomiting. Doctors told Paetzold he had to clean up his act, and he took the advice seriously. Then a bartender at the Skylark Lounge in addition to being a graphic designer, he quit smoking and drinking immediately. When a deep depression followed, he started seeing a therapist. Basically, Paetzold says, he didn't want to waste any more time not taking care for himself.

The result was a renewed drive to be a better photographer. "I started putting my heart and soul in my photography, talking to people and donating anything I can for any cause that comes to me. I literally turned my life around, and it is such a wonderful feeling," says Paetzold.

Which brings him to the work that will be on display at tonight's debut of The One Hour Motel. Paetzold has done solo shows of his work prior to this one, but he says this show is particularly symbolic of his attitude change. Paetzold photographed vintage signs all along East Colfax, starting with the motel that houses Rockbar and going all the way to Peoria.

Then he moved on to shooting the inside of each motel, but found that most owners didn't have any desire for a photographer to get behind closed doors. He eventually convinced motel employees to let him in just to "see how big the rooms were," which led to a negotiation of time for each room. But the photos didn't capture what Paetzold was looking for. "I took a couple of photos, but they didn't do anything. You couldn't smell the rooms, you couldn't really feel being there," he says. Then it dawned on him: He needed to get some people in the rooms. So Paetzold enlisted friends and acquaintances as models, and let them in on his vision. The resulting work is what the photographer calls "50/50": Half of it encompasses the beauty in vintage motel signs, and the other half, a scandalous fictional story told by Paetzold's lens.

The layout of Bardo's proved to be a perfect match for this concept, too. The front half of the coffee shop will be devoted to the exterior shots, and the back half will be the more PG-13 images.

Almost sixty prints will be on display there for the next month and can be purchased via text message -- a secure system Paetzold will have set up through PayPal. To keep costs low -- all images will be $100 and under -- no purchasable images will be framed. He's also printing a coffeetable book of The One Hour Motel for those interested in the images as a body of work. Sales will go toward his medical bills.

Randall Paetzold's The One Hour Motel opens tonight at Bardo's CoffeeHouse, 238 South Broadway, with a reception from 8 to 10 p.m.

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