Tucked away on the western slope of Colorado, off the beaten path of the tourist-ridden ski towns speckling the beautiful state, is a small town of fewer than 3,000 people. Filled with hippies, hunters, farmers, ranchers, and miners, North Fork Valley is the kind of place that most Denver residents have never even heard of. Denver-based editorial and commercial photographer Theo Stroomer was once one of these people — that is until he got invited up to the valley. It has now become one of his most prominent personal projects:
I grew up in the suburbs. At first I think I was interested in the North Fork Valley because it is so obviously different from my hometown. A close friend moved there and started inviting me up, and from there I got sucked in. I finally decided to spend a few weeks photographing to see how it felt in 2013, and the project took off from there.
Titled “To Be Rural,” the project is a representation of what modern life entails in a western community, aside from the “few lamentable stereotypes” that this touristy region has been boiled down to.
Soon after Theo began the project, he realized that he wanted to spend significant time in this charming little community, which features beautiful scenery among the fracking, gun control, flooding, draught and a generation of retiring farmers.
So he began applying for grants. Early on, he received one from the Documentary Project Fund, and just recently received one from the Puffin Foundation that will help him continue the project as well as exhibit the photographs. Theo emphasizes the socioeconomic shifts that are affecting the region, as Elk Creek, a major coal mine just closed, leaving nearly 300 people jobless.
Theo will go up for weeks at a time, spending time storytelling and digging into people’s lives:
I ask a lot of people to shadow them and take pictures. An overwhelming number are wonderful, friendly and forthcoming … one challenge I am having is convincing somebody to let me come mushroom hunting. It’s very secretive and the windows for finding them are tough to line up with my schedule.
Theo has picked up some practical skills along the way, including how to ride a horse, find wild asparagus, and the fact that chicken blood is great for growing raspberry bushes!
I have come to see the North Fork as a modern microcosm for the changes in my home state and the nation. It reflects the evolution of many western communities, incorporating the rich western traditions of it’s history into a unique and modern Colorado identity.