Sunday, December 17, 2023

Q&A with William Wyckoff




William Wyckoff is the author of the new book Mac McCloud's Five Points: Photographing Black Denver 1938-1975. His other books include How to Read the American West. He is a professor emeritus of geography at Montana State University.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book featuring photographer Mac McCloud’s (1908-1990) pictures of Denver’s Black community in the mid-20th century?


A: The project evolved in unexpected ways. As a cultural geographer interested in Denver, I found Mac’s amazing photographs at the Denver Public Library and initially wanted to use them in a repeat photography project.


I revisited many of the street corners, churches, and businesses that he photographed and took the exact same image 50 to 70 years later. All interesting comparisons.


But then I started spending more time with Mac’s images, often stored as negatives in his large archival collection. While Mac took many interesting pictures of landscapes in his business as a local photographer, it was really his images of people in Denver’s Black community that preserved something special about that place and time.


Working with my editors at the University of New Mexico Press, I decided to refocus the book some and really delve into Mac’s photographs of the people that defined Denver’s large Black community, especially between 1950 and 1975 when he did most of his commercial photography work in the Five Points neighborhood.


Ultimately, Mac’s own life and what he successfully preserved in Five Points became the focus of my book.


Q: What do you see as Mac McCloud’s legacy today?


A: Mac moved to Denver from Alabama in 1930 and spent the next 60 years there. In those decades, he took more than 100,000 photographs of the community he called home in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Absolutely an amazing record of life during an era that saw tremendous change across the West and in urban America.


Mac’s legacy is that he captured a unique slice of the Jim Crow West in Denver, a time when Black residents suffered from discrimination and segregation, but also produced a vibrant neighborhood that survived in its own ways as Black churches, businesses, and social organizations fashioned a thriving community.


Later in his career, Mac also captured how the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s brought new opportunities to Black residents, but also hastened the fragmentation of the once-segregated Five Points neighborhood.


Given how rapidly the Five Points area has gentrified and changed since Mac’s death in 1990, I hope this book succeeds in telling that earlier story through the images Mac made. That’s his most important legacy, preserving through his photographs a life and a neighborhood that is no longer so legible today.


Most broadly, Mac’s images of these places and people remind us how central Black communities have been in creating the history of urban America.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: In its early stages, as I rephotographed many of Mac’s local landscapes, I spent a lot of time on the streets and in his shoes, revisiting city blocks and places that he photographed. That experience really helped me get to know the neighborhood, at least as it was in the early 21st century.


I was surprised by how much of the earlier landscape had been swept away in urban change, with new lofts, businesses, and commercial developments reshaping much of the Five Points neighborhood.


As I shifted my focus to what really defined that earlier Five Points community, I spent more time looking at how his images of people magically captured that place and time.


I also researched some of the individuals and families that Mac photographed. It was wonderful to connect with the children and grandchildren of the people Mac knew and to share his photographs with them.


Even with all the urban change that has reshaped Five Points, it was great to see how many Black families still in Denver have roots in the neighborhood.


Q: How did you choose the photographs to include in the book?


A: That was a real challenge! There were more than 70 large boxes of Mac’s prints and negatives in the collection at the Denver Public Library. How do you winnow down more than 100,000 choices to the 73 plates that I have in the book?


Obviously, my choices were personal and selective, but I wanted to capture some of the variety of Mac’s work and share a small, but representative sample with my readers.


I spent many days hunched over a light table, squinting at negatives and I also benefited from what earlier researchers had already digitized and made available.


I decided to group the images into four “galleries” of photographs that I thought would display some of the variety of Mac’s photographic talent.


“Places” capture some of the landscapes that defined the Five Points neighborhood, the churches, residences, and commercial blocks that Mac knew well.


“Work” and “Play” were two galleries that represented some of Mac’s most evocative images of ordinary people in the Black community and for me they are the heart of the book and what Mac did best.


But I also wanted to include “Fame” as a gallery because Mac was on the scene when Hank Aaron, Mahalia Jackson, Cassius Clay, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town.


It is a reminder of Black Denver’s larger national importance. Mac got to know them all and I think he enjoyed being a small part of history as he recorded the visits of Black America’s leading entertainers, sports celebrities, and political and cultural leaders.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m putting the finishing touches on another book project that is at a very different scale than the Denver book.


Titled Transect: Old Trails across America, the book tells the story of one of the nation’s early transcontinental automobile roads that was called the National Old Trails Highway.


Marked in 1915 by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Automobile Club of Southern California, it was designed to take pioneering motorists from New York City to Los Angeles in a sweeping 3,200-mile route across the country.


In the book, I document the story of the highway’s origins and then follow the entire original route from New York City to the West Coast.


The book is the story of what I saw along the way. How has the road survived or disappeared? How has the American landscape along its length persisted or been transformed? It was another fun and exciting project!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: More of Mac’s images are available online at the Denver Public Library. Details on the collection and on other digital images are available at and at


More on my own professional background is available at and at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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