Colorado Then & Now: Retired Teacher Shares Unique Look Into State's Past

May 18, 2015


Looking Up Wazee From 15th, 1980's Photo by Barbara Gal
Looking Up Wazee From 15th, 1980s

If you’re new to Colorado this may be hard to imagine, but the vibrant, lively atmosphere of today in Denver’s lower downtown neighborhood stands in stark contrast to what you would have seen walking its streets just a few decades ago. Sure, longtime residents can tell you all about what was there—the boarded up buildings, the industrial blight—but it’s another thing to see it for yourself. Changes like that, among others, are exactly what you’ll see at an exhibit of photographs by Barbara Gal currently being shown at Denver International Airport.

There is perhaps no better venue for the former Columbine High School photography teacher’s showcase than DIA, which replaced the aging Stapleton International Airport in 1995. After all, around the time LoDo was a ghost town, the land on which DIA currently stands was nothing but rolling prairie. Even today, as anyone who’s been there in the past few years can attest, the airport is undergoing significant changes and additions including a transportation hub connecting it to—you guessed it—LoDo via the revamped Union Station.

The show, which is running now through early June, contains more than 500 photos Barbara took over the past 45 years living in Colorado. I spoke with her recently about her photography, her career as a teacher, and how retirement has given her the freedom to pursue her passions.

What made you want to move to Colorado?

I came here on vacation to visit friends, and we just fell in love with the place. The weather, the people, the mountains—I had never seen mountains in my life—the history, it was just wonderful. I got moved to Indiana when I was 16 and I was there for 10 years and I hated it, so I think I was very open to looking for a place to move anyway.

I grew up here, and I can’t think of living anywhere else so I know what you mean. I was born in the ‘80s, and even though I was a little kid I remember how different things used to be here. What would to say has changed the most about the state during your time documenting it?

The volume of people. The density. It’s just mind-boggling. It’s just like, can we absorb more? And it just keeps growing. And you can’t—I mean, what can you say? I mean, I moved here, and I brought half of my family with me!

You know I haven’t had a chance to see your exhibit at DIA yet—I’m planning on going with my wife soon—but I did get a chance to see your Etsy page, which I highly recommend people check out in addition to the exhibit, and I think one of my favorite things about it is this whole before, during, and after thing you do. Do you have a favorite series of those?

My two favorites are ones I haven’t been back to in a long time and that’s the Moffat Road and the Peru Creek and Argentine mines. I haven’t been back because I don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle—it used to be they would grade the roads and you could get up there with a normal vehicle. I’m planning on trying to go back with someone this summer to see what it looks like now. The Argentine [Pass] area is pretty much the same, but Peru Creek has changed a lot because of the proximity to Keystone.

Yeah, I think a lot of people think of the growth as just having happened down in the front range, but it’s changed a lot up in the mountains too.

Oh, it’s unbelievable in the mountains. The year I moved here in 1971, my husband was a claims adjuster and they had a flood when they were building the Keystone ski lodge and getting ready to open the Keystone ski area that winter, and he had to go up and document it. So we went up, and that’s how I ended up with that picture, and now I don’t even know if the lodge is still there but if it is it’s totally covered with everything else. At the time, that was the only thing there. That and a lift line.

Barbara Gal 3
Barbara Gal at NEXT Gallery, Denver

I wanted to ask you about your teaching career. What did you enjoy most about teaching photography?

Just sharing my love of photography with young people and getting them hooked. It was a lot of fun. I got a lot of kids who didn’t think they were artists because they didn’t think they could draw, and so they felt photography was safe because they didn’t have to draw so I’d get a lot of kids hooked that way, and then they would end up with a career in some other kind of art or in photography. It was getting kids hooked on the idea of being creative.

Do you have any advice to teachers who’s just entering service?

Oh jeez, don’t? [Laughing] Some of the things happening right now are really hard. But, I worked to train teachers at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and I always told my students “you won’t get rich, but you will never be bored.” I was never bored a single day of teaching. I just loved it. I never got tired of it. I have so many young friends now, the kids who graduated when I retired turned 32 this year. I have former students who are age 32 on up into their 50s that I’m friends with.

From a retirement perspective, did PERA play a role in you staying in the teaching profession?

You know, I was not smart enough to think that far ahead. It didn’t dawn on me, I was teaching because it was something I loved. I wanted to be an art teacher from when I was in kindergarten because I had a wonderful art teacher from kindergarten through 8th grade, then I had someone trained by her, and I had other wonderful teachers. It’s what I wanted to do my whole life. Eventually I did start to think about retirement.

Has retirement affected your art?

Oh yeah, I have time to do it! Teaching is draining, it’s hard. I looked forward to going into the next phase of my life. So I get to be an artist now.

And what’s next for you?

Well, as far as this project, people are bugging me to do a book with it, like a coffee table book, and I have to think about that. I might, but there are a lot of things I have to consider with it.

I also have a show coming up at NEXT Gallery opening on June 5 that’s going to feature some of the photos I took on a recent trip to Europe, so France and Italy. After that, I’m going to figure out what’s going to happen with the photos on display at DIA.

Barbara Gal’s photo exhibition, “45 Years of Photographing Colorado” which can currently be seen at Denver International Airport in the Jeppesen Terminal (Level 5, near baggage claim) and will run until at least early June. Her work can also be viewed at NEXT Gallery in Denver’s Highland neighborhood, as well as on Etsy by searching BarbaraGalPhotos. She taught photography at Columbine High School for 26 years, and is a founding member of 40 West Arts in Lakewood.