A Beautiful Struggle

“Colfax is seductive, I talk to her and speak of her as a woman because I believe Colfax is strong and beautiful and complex. She’s rugged; it’s pure poetry out there. Sometimes I walk around and the church bells are going off and somebody’s yelling at somebody across the street and somebody’s laughing. Somebody’s in an alley mumbling to themselves, trying to figure ‘it’ out, you know, sifting through their own insanity. Cars are honking, dogs are barking. It’s the madness of the city, on Colfax you really get that.”

Photographer Billy Henry lives a block off of Colfax and couldn’t picture himself anywhere else in the city. I meet him at Sassafras, just a few blocks away from his apartment.

One of Colfax’s most woke individuals doesn’t sport dreadlocks and has probably never hosted an organic pop up dinner in his garden. Billy dons a t-shirt, black rimmed glasses, sneakers, and a flat brimmed hat. He arrives equipped with two vape pens; one contains 100% natural vegetable glycerin nicotine (he quit cigarettes years ago) and the other a very high-grade cannabis hash oil.

He fasts every day until the evening, so rather than food, he opts for a quadruple espresso topped with a touch of water and a side of seltzer with a lime. Or was it a lemon? I start recording, and he makes my job easy from there, he skips the formalities and slides swiftly into deeper conversation. He emanates a beatnik-esque presence. 

I ask him if he is ever inspired by the writer that once inhabited the same street. He says, “Kerouac wrote in such a way that it was jazz to him, it was continuous, it was instinct and it was spontaneous which is why when he started writing he didn’t stop, it was just this manic madness.” This reminds me of a quote of Billy’s in a recent Westword article, “Photography plugs me into the combustible jazz of the human condition.” Billy comes back to these jazz-like characteristics of spontaneity and instinct continuously. As a street photographer, it has been necessary for him to master both.

“In a tenth of a second it’s gone, you have to be mindful to see something, across the street, or to see a look into somebody’s eyes. The more I go on instinct I think the more real it is and it’s an exercise in mindfulness which sounds really dreamy, and the concept is beautiful, but it’s really fucking hard to be living and breathing in the moment.”

Billy was part of the Colfax Avenue exhibit at Westword’s “Iconic Streets” themed Artopia event in February 2017. His portraits are sometimes playful, but often convey a bit of mystery, and a bit of pain. Many of his photographs are in black and white, with an emphasis on contrast. While he has an appreciation for candid shots, he likes when he can get his subjects to engage with the camera. “Someone that is trying to not reveal something is still revealing something. I’ve had stories where people have been really protective and basically tell me to fuck off.

A few months ago I was walking around here and a local drug dealer was like ‘You’re not taking my picture.’ So we just start talking about where we were from and eventually we figure out we were kind of born in the same place and as soon as we have that connection it was like ‘Alright man, go ahead and take a couple.’ There’s that human side where it’s like ‘Yeah fuck you, I’m an animal, I’m a killa, and then all of a sudden we have something in common and boom, the guard’s down. That’s just so human, that to me is what’s fascinating.”

Billy is interested in the way we contradict ourselves, how insanity and brilliance are such parallel concepts, how when we look at each other, we are really glancing at our alter egos. “I’m instinctively looking for things about them, but also seeing myself. I have some of the most authentic interactions with people on Colfax. Is it a little edgy? Is there some grime? Is it dangerous in spots? Maybe, but it’s a city, and I think we are all just two or three steps away from being where some of them are.

Denver is going through so much gentrification and change, but all the while, the storyline of Colfax goes and goes. It’s a testament that this is a city, that there is a history, that we do have diversity, that there is a struggle, that there’s beauty in the struggle. Regardless of everything else that is going on in Denver, I know that Colfax is going to stay Colfax whether people like it or not.”

Check out Billy’s work and follow him on Instagram here.

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