The Lion’s Lair has stood on Colfax Avenue in Denver for decades. And while the facade of the dive bar serves as the focus of photographer Gary Isaacs’ new photo exhibition, what appears around the Lair often draws just as much attention.
Take, for example, passersby like a bird about to cross the road or the No. 15 bus that runs along East Colfax.
"As much as these are kind of dismissible images in many respects, I see a lot of magic in them and a lot of serendipity,” Isaacs says. “They're exquisite moments."
The exhibition “36 Views of the Lion’s Lair” runs at Denver’s Leon Gallery through Jan. 4.
The title references “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” a renowned series of woodblock prints created in the 19th century by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.
“I’m sure people have done this in different ways,” Isaacs says. “It’s an interesting notion that there’s the ever present, something prominent like Mount Fuji, used as a kind of anchor for observing what’s going on around it.”
And while the show draws inspiration from that series, it was a dream that inadvertently spurred the entire effort for Isaacs in 2008. In the dream, the artist awoke to find his uncle sitting on the bed with an image of Hokusai’s piece “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” tattooed on his back.
“I didn’t even know what to make of it other than that as an artist and as a person, I pay attention to my dreams,” Isaacs says.
With the image fresh in his mind, Isaacs later walked by the Lion’s Lair -- which he does regularly -- when the thought of a creative pursuit struck.
The photographer previously created many images both inside and outside of the club, which is also a live music venue for both up and coming and established rock bands from Colorado and beyond. Homegrown acts like Devotchka and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club have performed there and still return from time to time.
But Isaacs started fresh for this project and amassed tens of thousands of new photos while abiding by one specific guideline: the building’s exterior must be present in the frame. The Lion’s Lair is the main focal point in some images, while only a sliver is visible in others.
“I have heard people over the years talk about the power of limitation, but I am the opposite because I like to have options,” Isaacs says. “Instead of it being a burden, it’s been the only time I think I can say that I really felt such a great support in the notion of working with something that defined of a limitation.”
Isaacs visited the bar at all hours of the day to capture moments of everyday life unfolding outside. Sometimes he’d sit at a cafe across the street for hours keeping an eye on the action, other nights he’d set his alarm for the early morning and shoot after the bar closed.
“It’s a dark, kind of grimy dive,” Isaacs says. “But I look at the Lion’s Lair kind of like a portal, like one of these places where it is what it is but maybe there’s something else going on here. It’s kind of fantastical.”