The front door of time

The past comes alive in David Colborn’s photographs of historic Reno homes

David Colborn poses with a photo of Sam and Felisa Savini’s home.

David Colborn poses with a photo of Sam and Felisa Savini’s home.

Photo by David Robert

“I’m 65 now,” says photographer and retired chemical engineer David Colborn. “When I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t take a picture with people in it. When you’re really young, you think of yourself as a second Ansel Adams. But the older you get, the more you see people as important in the picture.”

After retiring and moving to Reno from the Bay Area two years ago, Colborn turned his landscape photography hobby into a full-blown artistic pursuit, converting a spare bedroom of his new house (which, by the way, is brand new, not historic) into a darkroom and enrolling in classes taught by well-known photographer Peter Goin at the University of Nevada, Reno. His latest project is a collection of black-and-white photographs of historic homes in the Newlands area of Reno—more commonly called the Old Southwest—now on display at McKinley Arts and Culture Center.

Colborn became interested in Newlands homes while taking part in Historic Reno Preservation Society walking tours. As he began to select homes for his project, Colborn sensed the importance of including the homes’ residents in his photographs.

“I like the contrast between the ephemeral and the semi-permanent,” he says. “Twenty years from now, there’s not going to be much difference [in the structure], but the people will be different. Photography as a slice of time is going to be more impacting with people in it.”

And not just people smiling, stiff and starched, in front of their residences. Portraiture and architectural photography both leave the door open for tedium, so when photographing his subjects Colborn was adamant that they have at least the pretense of naturalness. The residents who do look at the camera appear to have been caught off guard; despite the technical precision of the photograph, the careful balance of shadow and light, the individuals themselves might have been lifted from family photo album Polaroids. Household pets frolic in many of the photographs; in several pieces, the residents themselves are static, but Colborn allowed the animal’s motion to come through in the photo.

“I tried to get either motion or some implication of action,” Colborn says, adding that he had to persuade many of his subjects to abandon their artificial postures. “'No, no, no, you can’t do that.'”

Colborn’s careful attention to shadow, as well as his teasing inclusion of nature in photos, also helps enliven his work. The contrast of light and dark is particularly stunning in Colborn’s photograph of Sam and Felisa Savini, photographed leaving the steps of their single-story Italian Renaissance Revival home on an early summer day. The home’s front lawn is filled with shadows cast by trees standing outside the frame; the grass looks rippled, almost liquid, and the white stucco house, contrasted with the shadows, is bright and vibrant.

Colborn’s other works don’t match the joy and movement conveyed by this piece, yet each is filled with an honesty and energy one doesn’t expect from photographs featuring 80-year-old slabs of brick and wood.