Homeless In Denver 2017

Darby and Dan, Train Hoppers
Sleeping Gypsy, homage to Henri Rousseau

The shot was taken on a path I often walk that takes me through a tunnel where a railroad passes under the highway.  I was mezmerized by the light in the tunnel and all the amazing details and the strong composition; the man’s face was lit from below, the texture on the pillowcase and blanket coming out strong from the oblique angle of light, the glow of ambient gold light bouncing off the beer can and coloring the concrete, the gossamer sheen on the white paint from the angle of reflected light, the glow of blue light coming from some fluid inside the bag on the right, and the extreme lunar-like texture of the wall and floor.


As I was passing, I was immediately reminded of a painting that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art by the painter Henri Rousseau entitled “Sleeping Gypsy”.  In this painting, the sleeping man’s body and dark face is similar and next to him lay objects that tell of his life.  Above him is a full white moon – much like the bright white square hanging over the man in the tunnel.  In Rousseau’s painting there is a lion standing on top of the sleeping man.  I couldn’t believe it when I noticed the man was sleeping on a blanket with a large tiger on it.  I photographed the man as he lay there while joggers and a mother with a baby carriage passed between us.  I photographed him in a grid of nine photographs. Later, these nine pieces were spliced together in the computer to form a single image.  In this way I could unfold the picture, as in Rousseau’s painting, so that the man was laying on the horizon line and almost falling off a tilted picture plane.  Shooting it this way also enabled me to create a mega-high resolution file that could be printed extremely large while maintaining sharp detail.


The allegorical aspects of this image are profuse.  The colors between the cracks in the wall show layers of graffiti rolled over by layers of gray paint, like a subtractive printmaking technique. Cigarette butts catch light from within the deep cracks; the peel from a freshly-eaten banana is lit with its long shadow at the man’s feet; hot pink graffiti drips come off the stenciled “NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING” sign in direct violation of law; the white rectangles on the top cascade down into the white rectangle holding the man’s head; and a very mysterious hole above the man’s head beckons interpretation.   All the details, describing in visual words, a story of time and place at this moment in a man’s life. My intention being to simply portray the beauty of this human scenario with compassion.


The next day, I ran into this same man outside the tunnel.  The police had just roughed him up and tossed all the possessions from his shopping cart onto the sidewalk.  He was visibly shaken and angry as he gathered his worldly belongings to put his life back together in the cart. “Did you get the money I left in your shoe yesterday?” I asked as I approached him.  “I did, so that was you. Thank you,” he replied as he started to relax a little.  “Did you know I took a picture of you sleeping in the tunnel?” I added.  “I thought I heard your camera clicking,” he said with a grin.  “Would you mind if I did a portrait of you now that you are awake?” I asked.  He said, “One minute the police have no respect for me as a human being and treat me like scum; the next minute you show me respect.  What a crazy world.  Maybe there is hope after all.  I am honored that you would want to take my picture.”  With that, I did the following head shot and a long running friendship began. 


It has been over six years now.  I still run into him and occasionally he rings my doorbell to say hello.  As it turns out, he was born in the row-house directly across the street from me.  His mother now lives down the block and he drops in on her now and then to take a shower. This is my special friend Marci.

"Sleeping Gypsy" by Henri Rousseau, 1897

Ookie, Lyric, Philli, Eric & Alfredo

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    Copyright John Bonath 2019