“Hot Chili” Story

One of my favorite storytelling photographs, taken way back in the day. It was originally shot on assignment for The Denver Post to show the sub zero weather Denver was experiencing that night. The “delicious Hot Chile” sign and steamy window beckons one inside to get warm. The cook on the right is dishing up some hot food, presumably for the man standing on the left. Workers still wearing hard hats are already enjoying a hot meal. I’d only shot 3 or 4 frames of film when the people inside sensed my presence, looked my way and the moment was gone.

It tells the story of severe cold in the city. Black & White was the best film choice to convey my vision. It was also the only choice at the time because the newspaper only printed color in the Sunday magazine. Everything else was shot with Kodak Tri-X film.

That was then, and here’s what I see in the photograph today: The elements that depict the cold night and warmth inside are still very evident. The “Burgers 60 cents” at the top certainly dates the image, as does the lit cigarette in the man’s hand.  Don’t see that too often now, do we? I’ve often wondered if the cook was fixing food for the man or whether he just stopped in to warm up? Was he homeless, just passing thru town, or one of the residents that lived in the “run-down” hotels nearby? Did the hard hats work for Public Service Company (now Xcel Energy) whose headquarters were a block away? Were they linemen who’d spent hours out in that cold?

Was the hot chili any good, or “greasy spoon diner” quality? Someone had wiped the moisture from a spot on the window at far right, presumably to peer out into the cold night. Was it the cook, hoping more customers might come in? Despite the fact this diner was next door to the newspaper office, I’d never been inside. Black & white, in my opinion, was still the best way to capture this image and tell the story.

What do you see in this photograph? I’d love to know. Send me an email, call me, or post a comment.

While the actual image was captured in a 30th of a second, it took about 4 hours to find the scene itself. Four hours of driving and walking around the city in sub-zero cold looking for a photograph that captured the cold weather.

Before the internet, email, cable tv and the continuous 24 hour news cycle most people read newspapers.  Finding photographs showing the local weather (weather art) were an integral part of the newspaper photographers job. My only assignment that cold January evening was to find such an image. Please remember, no LoDo, no 16th St Mall, most stores and shopping centers weren’t open at night.

It was usually no problem to find someone walking their dog or  jogging thru a park. But not this night. Everyone was inside keeping warm. Temperature was below zero, and in 4 hours not one decent photo op presented itself — until I walked past this downtown diner. It was next door to the Denver Post building. I’d spent 4 hours scouring the entire city and the photograph was right next door. Go figure!

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