Papo’s Shop

You may have already noticed an update to the photographs section of this website: a selection of images from my explorations of Papo’s Shop last month has been added. At this time, it’s a gallery of fourteen images, and represents a quick selection of favorites from the greater body of work that I made of the shop. I’m really pleased with how the work has come out, and I’m excited to be able to make some prints of these when I get back to the United States. I might not wait, though– we’ve got a little printer here at the house in Renkum, so I think I’ll try my hand at making a few prints, just to have some physical examples of my work around for folks who may be interested.

In some ways, the biggest challenge of making photos in Papo’s shop was actually finding clean compositions that I’ve come to regard as being part of my photographic style. As is probably evident from some of the images, the shop can be a little visually overwhelming– stuff on stuff that’s sitting on top of or inside other stuff can make for some pretty cluttered scenes, which can be good in some cases and contexts, but not so good in others. In fact, I’m sure that as I show the work around, I’ll bet some folks identify the more visually busy images as more engaging, while others will prefer the simpler lines of the more spare compositions. We all have different preferences, after all. I’m sure we can all think of something that everyone seems to like that we, individually, just can’t abide, whether it’s a type of wine, music genre, national monument, or pizza topping. Conversely, we all have our pet “underdogs” too– something derided by the public-at-large, but loved nonetheless by a relative minority, like snakes as pets, tongues as food, or a particular canceled television show from the 1980s.

So who was Papo– and what was the world he inhabited? Charlie and Ruby Lowe, my great-grandparents, first came to Summit County, Colorado in the summer of 1929 (I’ll double check this date, and remove this message once I have an opportunity to fact-check a bit) as caretakers for a ranch owned by a Denver businessman. Now that I think about it, Papo was in a place in his life that is not entirely unlike mine at the moment. Recently married, he and his wife hit the road to start their life together, and ventured into the unknown. Colorado suited them, and they spent the next forty years there, first living as caretakers on the ranch, and later purchasing it as their own. My great-grandmother taught school (she was a bit of a rebel, since it was considered inappropriate for her to work as a married woman, since the thought at the time was that her husband should take care of her), and my great-grandfather worked on the ranch, as well as taking odd jobs with various other area projects, such as the construction of the Green Mountain Reservoir.

Summit County is only about 70 miles or so from Denver, and these days is only a bit more than an hour’s drive away, but when my great-grandparents moved there, things were a lot more isolated. There was, of course, no interstate system, and especially no quick and convenient tunnel through the mountain as there is now. It was a world of narrow winding roads and high passes, and it was difficult enough to get to nearest town in the winter, let alone Denver. I suspect pavement was scarce, as the automobile was still new to the west, and most of the agricultural work was still done by horse-power. This isolation, coupled with the effects of the Great Depression, meant that raw materials were scarce, and nothing was allowed to go to waste. This is extremely evident in the shop– every nut and bolt was retained. All manner of food containers, primarily coffee cans, were used to hold and organize ephemera. Bits of scrap iron hang from nails on the wall– an eclectic variety of materials can be found tucked away in every corner, stored away for some possible use, or eventual repair.

They were part of a community, albeit a small one, but they had to be self-sufficient, and Papo was something of a jack-of-all-trades, being his own mechanic, farrier, plumber, carpenter, and cowboy. I have a suspicion he was his own veterinarian too, at least much of the time. He played the piano and the fiddle, and called square dances at community get-togethers. Like many ranchers, he shared a strong connection with the land, relying on it both for his livelihood, and his recreation. He was an outdoorsman who lived on the edge of the wilderness, and understood the value of stewardship of the environment. I have a feeling that he would bristle if anyone applied the modern term “environmentalist” to him, but you’d have to be more than just a little environmentally-minded to go to the trouble of releasing hundreds of fish into a depopulated mountain lake, dozens of miles into the backcountry, even if you were doing it so you could go fishing a few years down the road, which is something that he and my great-grandmother did at Ruby Lake.

I was never able to meet Papo– he passed away several years before I was born, but I’ve gotten to know him through the stories of my great-grandmother, grandparents, and my dad. He has also left something of a physical legacy behind at the Colorado ranch, tucked away in little places like his workshop, where bits of his personality can be discovered via the projects and objects he stored, forgot, or otherwise left behind.

I hope the images will convey a bit of what it was like to be able to explore this space. There are many things that I just couldn’t photograph, like the smell of dust and oil, and the sound of the breeze blowing through the pine and aspen trees outside. It was, no doubt, a very different shop from the one my great-grandfather left. There was no smell of smoke from the forge, which had been cold for decades, and probably substantially more cobwebs. The majority of his tools, such as his anvil, probably made the journey north to Montana, and were no longer to be found in the shop. Still, it was nice to spend some hours in space so permeated by the personality of a namesake I had never met, working on a project of my own.

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