The Wizard of Woody Creek
Glimpses of George Stranahan’s creative life
“As I look at my photos now,” George Stranahan said in 2009, “I think that perhaps they are the serious work of my life.”
It’s a bold and surprising sentiment from Stranahan, the Roaring Fork Valley icon, who died in late May at age 89 and left a towering legacy of “serious work” in philanthropy, physics, business and education.
In the days since his death, testimonials have poured out from seemingly every local community about Stranahan and the dizzying array of ways he impacted and improved lives here both on a big systemic level and a small neighborly one from the top of Woody Creek Road, where he planted the seeds of Aspen’s counterculture some six decades ago.
The photography might seem like a footnote in his life story, but clearly Stranahan didn’t see it that way.
Stranahan made photos for most of his life and shot almost exclusively in black and white. His compositions are simple and often stark, but his gift as a visual artist was his ability to extract emotions with his camera or to tell a story with a still life.
In his late 70s and early 80s, Stranahan published two books of his photos – both aiming ambitiously to visually define, address and improve Earthly “predicaments.”
His first, 2009’s “Phlogs: Journey to the Heart of the Human Predicament,” collected decades of images – among them candids in the Bresson style from his world travels, unusual angles on old Woody Creek ranching life and gorgeously composed but haunting images, like the cover image of a nude women curled face-down in a bathtub and another of a white shirt hanging in an open window. It is interspersed with Stranahan’s seemingly stray and aphoristic thoughts on big themes.
“Phlogs” was published by Stranahan’s own nonprofit People’s Press – a short-lived but influential creative endeavor that’s also worthy of its own column – and won him a Colorado Book Award in the pictoral category.
His second collection is 2013’s “A Predicament of Innocents: Might the Schools Help?” A fierce polemic about the American education system and standardized testing, it is powered by 120 portraits Stranahan made of Woody Creek Community School students over the course of three decades.
Shot in the standard School Photo Day style, these subversive portraits personalize the book’s policy arguments. His head-on shots of young people are imbued with Stranahan’s simmering rage over education policy.
“They’re looking right at you,” he told me of his photo subjects upon publication. “They’re saying, ‘This is me. This is who you’re doing this to. How could you?’”
In an earlier third book, published in 2008 but seemingly impossible to find and lost to time, Stranahan collaborated with the late Lenado legend and Aspen Times columnist Gaylord Guenin. Titled “It’s Not All of Fishing to Fish,” it included Stranahan photos of old fishing equipment.
Stranahan had public photo exhibitions over the decades at galleries in New York, Boston and here in the valley at the Wyly Community Art Center in Basalt, Colorado Mountain College in Aspen and in various permutations of what he originally opened as the Woody Creek Store.
But the most impactful and certainly the most characteristic of Stranahan was an October 2015 exhibition at the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen, where Stranahan showed and gave away thousands of his photographs to anyone who wanted them. It was the last phase of a massive years-long project during which Stranahan organized, digitized and printed his life’s work in photography.
It was fitting, of course — and unsurprising to anyone who knew the man – that Stranahan’s capstone photo show also functioned as a gift.
Gallerist D.J. Watkins recalled last week that Stranahan told him he wanted when he died “to leave a clean room,” as in not leaving a mess of toys around the house like a sloppy kid at bed time. He didn’t want to burden his family with thousands of boxed-up photos. He wanted the crowds at the Gonzo to have their pick.
So now, instead of collecting dust in the Stranahan barn or going to whatever university archive ends up getting Stranahan’s papers, his photos are hanging in homes and living with people here in the Roaring Fork Valley and far beyond.
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