Fine Art

"Wind" by Lesley Nowlin from Being a Twin: Elements
"Wind" by Lesley Nowlin from Being a Twin: Elements

“Wind” by Lesley Nowlin from Being a Twin: Elements

 

Austin fine art photographer Lesley Nowlin was chosen as one of four artists for the upcoming exhibition: Face Value opening September 6th at Davis Gallery. Lesley will be showing images from her series in progress: Being a Twin.

Lesley, a twin herself, has been exploring that relationship through her photographic work using traditional, modern, and alternative photographic processes. Lesley shared this intimate project with my twin and me when she photographed us a few months ago.

How did you get started in photography?

My dad played around with photography when I was young, as well as my grandfather and great grandmother.  When I was about 14 I remember my dad teaching me how to read a light meter on a Leica rangefinder.  After that I started photographing sports and yearbook events during high school.  I learned how to develop and print silver gelatin in a tiny darkroom at Westwood High School.  After going to the Maine Photographic Workshop during my junior year of high school I then chose to attend the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford.  That was when I fell in love with art.

 

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Tell me about your interest and education in alternative processes.
During my time at HAS we were required as art majors to learn all the mediums.  I really enjoyed printmaking and drawing, although I was never really good at it.  Back in my college years we were on the brink of transitioning into digital, but everything we did was still very much produced in the darkroom.  I loved getting my hands dirty and watching the image appear on the paper.  Creating something from scratch and the printing process itself is the true art quality I love so much.  However, that being said, I’ve turned to digital shooting, yet stuck with printing platinum and silver.  With the format I’m creating in this current work the digital image is much easier to work with.  I still love film for documentary and street photography, but I’m not currently working in that environment.
I loved getting my hands dirty and watching the image appear on the paper.
After opening a photography gallery in 2009-2011 I realized everything I fell in love with from other photographers was created with the alternative process,  whether it was silver gelatin, salt, cyanotype, or platinum.  After closing the gallery I decided to pursue the alternative process for myself and studied at Maine Media Workshop with Brenton Hamilton.  He taught me how to print platinum, as well as other processes, using digital negatives.  I’ve been working on it for the last 2 years on my own trying to master the craft, although I have a long way to go.
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How long have you been working on the twin series and how has the meaning evolved since you started working on it?

I started the series actually when attending the Maine Media Workshop back in 2002 (for the second time). I had an instructor, Stella Johnson, who helped me create a project for myself.  We had to plan shooting our subject(s) before we got there.  I wanted to work on something for that week that was closely related to me.  Up until that point I was more of a street photographer, and liked to travel and “shoot what I saw” on my international adventures. At the beginning of the “Being a Twin” project I was trying to connect in my own relationship with my twin by studying the connections of other twins and how they related to each other. I learned a lot with my 10 years of photographing twins.  About two years ago I drew on the fact that I loved art so much, and wanted to start making more narrative and composed pieces. I’m drawn to painters like Gustav Klimt and John Waterhouse, and photographers like Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison and Luis Gonzales de Palma.  Their ability to create a surreal environment with the human subject, very spiritual and ethereal, really drew me in.  I wanted to incorporate that direction in my own work, while still making it mine.  I’m photographing the twins (mostly female) in environments of nature to show their spiritual connection, as well as a tension and ease between the two.  Then, I’m printing platinum on vellum and lining it with composition gold, silver or copper leaf.  Printing the negatives separately and then putting it back together creates a broken and mosaic like quality.  It’s very fun to do, as well as time consuming.  No pieces will be the same, and that’s what I enjoy most about it.  I’ve also been learning a lot as I continue to make different pieces.  My process has been getting more precise as I go along.
I was trying to connect with my own relationship with my twin by studying the connections of other twins and how they related to each other.
How did you come to be a part of the Face Value exhibition at Davis Gallery?

Bill Davis is a very kind person who I’ve known for a while.  I knew the curator of the show, Christina Martell, who left shortly after, and Susannah Morgan took over.  They were putting together a show of different portraiture work, and asked me to participate.  At first I was going to make individual platinum prints of my original “Being a Twin” work.  But then I grabbed the opportunity to show my new vision of where I wanted this work to go, and that’s when “Being a Twin: Elements” was created.  Ultimately, I’m very happy I’m able to have a show with a group.  It gave me the chance to start this new work at a slower pace.
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What are your future plans for photography? Do you have any other photo projects that you are working on?

My goal is to create 15-20 pieces for a solo show somewhere.  The most challenging part of owning a photography gallery in Austin, for me, was that I didn’t know how to create clients.  I had a ton of photographers asking to show their work, and I didn’t have enough time or finances to do it.  After about a year I realized owning a gallery was not the career for me.  Creating my own work was more important.   It would be wonderful to have a photography gallery in Austin, but I don’t feel there’s a market here for it, which is unfortunate.  There are many great photographers in Austin and only a few places to exhibit.  Davis Gallery is kind enough to have a show specifically for photography and mixed media, but most art galleries in Austin view the medium of photography as an entirely different art form, and maybe aren’t willing to go out of their comfort zone to learn more about it.  More than likely I’ll have to go outside of my hometown to find an exhibition space for “Being a Twin: Elements”.  Really hoping someone will want to show it!

 

You’ll definitely want to see these pieces in person. Face Value closes October 18th, 2014.

 

From being an activist, an artist, a teacher and worldly traveler, Nine Francois has definitely lived a fascinating life to say the least. I was recently lucky enough to talk, laugh and live her adventures through her stories.

 

Where did you grow up?

My family emigrated from the French West Indies to Thibodaux, Louisiana. Before that we’d lived in Martinique and Puerto Rico but the chunk of my young life was in Louisiana.

Are you close with your family?

My Mom lives in Louisiana and my Dad lives in France so half of my family is on a different continent. The distance puts some stress on the relationship but I take my kids back as often as I can.

What/Who would you say were your biggest influence?

My brother attended Tulane University on an architectural scholarship and he was also a marvelous painter who hung out with that crowd. The people I met through him were very inspirational. I wanted to pursue art at Tulane but my parents told me that there couldn’t be two artists in one family. My second love was traveling so I thought, I’ll be a diplomat or something of that nature, so I got a degree in political science thinking I would travel the world. I got a job at the Louisiana’s World Fair working as a liaison between the city and the fair. I worked with lots of city officials and politicos including Governor Edwin Edwards and his entourage. This really opened my eyes and I learned a lot about myself, like that I really don’t like politics. I was frustrated at the time because here I have a degree in politics and I didn’t want to do anything with it! So, I left and moved to New York for two years with a boyfriend. He was an amazing illustrator. At the time, I was also into drawing, in a very photo-realistic style, but he was so good at it and so much more creative, that I decide to do something completely different, so I chose photography. I think that this boyfriend really influenced me as he introduced me to Jazz and cool avant-garde art.  It fed the part of me that I had to cut off when I was choosing my major in Tulane and it got me back to where I started, which was art.

What inspires your current work?

My aesthetic is clean lines and it’s in everything I do. It might have to do with the years that I studied graphic design and worked in Advertising. There’s just something about clean lines and well-defined space that inspires me.

What other careers were you involved in before committing to photography?

Lots! There was politics and that morphed into civic action. I’m an activist at heart but I put that aside when I moved to New York. I worked in advertising for a couple of years and learned that it was too cut throat for me. When we left New York, we moved to Austin because we heard it was great and I wanted to go back to school to study journalism. During school, I worked at an outdoor store called Wilderness Supply. We’d go rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking — I’ve always liked the outdoors so this felt really right, especially after working in advertising which was absolutely stressful. The nature part was very healing to me.

Were there any professors in school that influenced you?

Absolutely. Mark Goodman at The University of Texas at Austin was a big influence for me. I’ve been told that I’m good at critiquing and understanding photographs and if I’m good at that it’s because if him. He’s amazing. He has a way of getting inside a photograph and finding out exactly what’s it’s about. He not only inspired me with what he did but he also allowed me to teach with him as a TA and it was magic. When we’d critique work from undergraduate students I remembered thinking what a great experience it was and students would say that about his critiques as well.

At what moment did you know you wanted to become a professional photographer?

Before I entered the Masters of Art degree program I took an undergraduate photography course with Mark Goodman. It was towards the end of the semester during finals when

…I found this incredible special in the newspaper that said: Flight to and from Caracas – Seven Nights in a Hotel – $300.

I remember very clearly going to his office. He was sitting at his desk, I spread a newspaper out for him to see which advertised round trip tickets and 7 nights in a hotel in Caracas, Venezuela for only $300. I looked at Mark and asked what he would do.  He looked at it and said, “I would take some really good pictures to make a dynamite final portfolio for this class.” So that’s what I did. My first picture ever published came from that trip and that’s where it started.

What is your thought process when combining travel and photography?

I’ve been traveling a lot since working on the Animalia series so I make sure to research where I’m going and what it can offer in terms of photographs for this series. This usually leads me on the coolest adventures. I went to Costa Rica recently where there was this reclusive woman who used to be a high powered corporate executive in Ohio. She came to Costa Rica some time ago and started an animal sanctuary that you can only get to by boat. Besides a few people that work for her she lives by herself where she has about ninety animals that she takes care of. When you get to her place, you go on a boat and dock at this beach and you can’t even see the entrance to her property because it’s just jungle. You walk through it, get to her compound and you’ll see that she’s living with these monkeys that she’s raised and panthers and other different animals. I went there to photograph a sloth and we spent the whole day with her and it was out-of-control cool. So, whenever I go somewhere I dig around to see what I can find.

 

How long have you been teaching? What classes do you teach?

I’ve been teaching at Austin Community College since nineteen ninety-five but in between that time I’ve also taught at Texas StateUT Austin and Southwestern University in Georgetown. Right now I’m part-time at ACC where I teach Introductory to Photography and another class that I love very much called Expressive Photography. In this class we collectively pick a theme and do all kinds of research on what that theme might means to us. Each student works all semester long on a portfolio trying to develop that idea and at the end they have an exhibit.

 

What was the story or thought process when creating the Composites series?

Sometimes the story is the first step and then you build the work to follow the idea but sometimes the story comes after you build the work. For the Composites series, it was the latter. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to do so I hung a big piece of white cloth right by the entrance of my door and in front of that was a chair and then my 4×5 camera. When anybody came into my house, I’d ask if they’d sit for a portrait. Then, all of a sudden, I had all of these pictures of people that I captured on Polaroid type 55 and each was its own object. At some point, I got into using the photographs as material and I started cutting, then sewing and stapling and pinching. Then, I began to see these objects as material that I could manipulate. From there, I created a different series that recombined faces, sometimes with people that were completely disconnected, sometimes with other family members or with different photos of the same person. I don’t know what it means but they looked really good together. That started another series I did called, Family AlbumMy favorite piece from that is at Nicholls State University in Louisiana where my mother taught for 30 years. It’s a 4×6 foot grid of individual photo tiles and each tile is comprised of glass, a photograph, masonite board and then a rod that sticks it off the wall. Each rod is one inch, two inches or three inches long so the tiles are undulating. I photographed portraits of myself, my mother and my grandmother and found other photographs of us in albums from all the different stages of our lives and I meshed them together. I created these composite portraits on regular photographic paper but they’re backed up against an MDF board which is full of pollutants. So you have this portrait that’s a combination of three generations of women and the images are bleeding and fading. Some come forward while the others recede. It’s a living portrait. I love what happens with time and the chemistry in the photographs that I can’t control.

 

 

Family Album from left: Passage, Heritage-1

Family Album from left: Passage, Heritage-1

What keeps you motivated to continually create a unique body of work?

I think the most beneficial motivator for me would be to take off and do a residency because what I’m lacking in my life is an extended period of time when I can just concentrate on creating. You need time to create. It takes a lot of open time to think and explore.

My consistent advice to my students who are about to graduate is – Sell everything! Leave now!

One of the things I remember as a kid is that you don’t have a sense of perspective because you live so much in the moment and think that it’s going to be like this forever. Sometimes you don’t realize that it takes one thing like marriage or a trauma or children or a job that changes the whole balance of your time. So, I tell my students that if they have the option to defer their student loans for a couple of years, they should just sell everything and get out of here! As someone who is bicultural I think that getting out and exploring the world is something that really needs to be pushed in our society for so many reasons. For people to become tolerant and for people to become more inspired. When you leave your country , your safely zone, and go somewhere else, you see things so differently.

What’s your favorite part of creating a new body of work?

The discovery. When you have an idea that’s turning in your head and you’re trying to make it work, then take that one seminal photograph that goes click. It says yes, this is the path to take; this is how you’re going to talk about this. The idea and the technique to me really have to work together. For the Animalia series, the giraffe picture was the very first one that I took. The story behind that happened when I had finished graduate school. I was so burnt out I didn’t know what to do so one day I took up a toy camera – a little plastic camera with a plastic lens – and went to a friend’s wedding in Louisiana. It was outdoors on a farm and I got side tracked by this rooster that was parading around. I slipped out of the wedding party and started stalking it, so while my friends were getting married I was chasing this one rooster down. I captured a photograph with these streaks of colors of the bird as it ran. When I saw the image I cut it out and put it in my journal. Years later, I went back and saw it and thought, well this could be something. I started going to farms and taking pictures where I photographed light colored animals against a dark background which developed into a series of work called The Farm. I kept that process going until one day I drove past the Exotic Sunrise B&B off of Ranch Road 12. They had zebras, giraffes and ostriches and other types of animals. When I saw the giraffe I realized I had to change everything. I switched it around and started photographing animals against the sun so the animals became dark and the background blew out white. That started the whole aesthetic for that project.

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Animalia: Giraffe, Zebra-1

What has been your best career decision so far?

I think teaching was an excellent decision. I come from a long line of professors and I never thought that it would be my thing but it’s the right mixture for me of supervision and freedom. When you teach at an institution you have a lot of freedom to run your own class. It’s getting more constricted and institutionalized these days but even within that there’s a lot of space to be creative. I teach part-time now and in the end, it’s really great  because I have time to work on creative projects and my fine art.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Austin?

I really love riding my bicycle during the East Austin Studio Tour. I’ve been living on the east side for over 12 years and I love it here. I feel like I live in a zone of creative people who are always exploring, thinking, stretching, and creating. It’s very inspiring.

What are you favorite restaurants?

Justine’s and the Blue Dahlia. I also like the Hillside Farmacy.

Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski
Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

For those of us who started our photo careers in a darkroom 36 frames at a time, it can be daunting trying to navigate digital and social photography as a business model. This is not the case for Kristen Wrzesniewski, a young (but wise beyond her years) photographer based in Austin, Texas. She is simultaneously tackling both social media and medium format film cameras. Kristen owns a beautiful and soulful style that is already recognizable, and she’s only just getting started.

Kristen is not just an excellent photographer, she is also the Marketing Director for Photogroup Austin, an Instagrammer for Lumix, and a blogger for Small Camera Big Picture. She knows where her web traffic comes from and she understands that photography succeeds when it’s about experiences, not just attitude.

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What makes Kristen stand out is how much of what she does feels sincere and very organic. She has over 3000 Instagram followers on her personal account, but she seems concerned only with the creative outlet. She does her double exposures in-camera (“I like to do things the hard way”), and rarely plans out her shoots (“I want to see the soul of the person I’m photographing, show who they are deep inside”). She’s not likely to be out with a crew of stylists in tow, nor is she going to post every frame or even every shoot online.

I want to see the soul of the person I’m photographing, show who they are deep inside.

Kristen is mostly self-taught. She began shooting her friends to relieve summer break boredom in her teens. After high school she put her point-and-shoot aside to study English at Texas State, but eventually came back to photography. She stuck with it despite a film teacher disliking her work enough to discourage her.

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The majority of images in Kristen‘s portfolio (many of which are still of her girlfriends) look like fashion and beauty shots, but she does not identify as fashion photographer. She is not really sure yet how she wants to make her mark, but is resolute that her work has to have meaning.

You mentioned shooting with the Lumix GH3 and GX7. What other cameras or equipment do you work with?

I have also shot with a Nikon D7000 in the past, but am selling it to focus on shooting with smaller cameras. The camera is typically secondary to me. With that said, I’m becoming addicted the GH3. It’s a great tool once you understand how to use it. About 30-40% of my work is film, but I have been shooting mostly digital this year because film can be expensive.

“Texas has a really good feeling to me, everyone is so kind.”

What are your favorite places to shoot in Texas and why?

Anywhere outside! Bastrop State Park is beautiful (and sadly, even more photogenic now). Enchanted Rock is an amazing place to shoot, but anywhere outside will do. I like exploring small Texas towns and talking to people who run small storefronts. Last time I was at Enchanted Rock with a model we went into a small fur and antler shop and the store owner was kind enough to let us shoot with his furs. It was great.

Texas is such a giant vast place, and there are so many different kinds of people and landscapes here. I’d really love to take a road trip all over Texas and just document what I see and the people I meet.

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What is your overall impression of the photography industry/community in Texas as a photographer and studio director?

I think Texans are much more laid back than the rest of the country, in general. (Mostly) everyone I’ve met has been so nice and open. There are a few people who carry an elitist kind of attitude but I don’t let those people get to me because a bad attitude gets you nowhere. I’d like to see more people openly talking about HOW they make their photos – people can be so secretive about this and I don’t know why. I believe even if I tell someone how I did something, they still cannot replicate it because it came from my brain. It’s my vision. I’d like to see more sharing of information in the future but I think that is well on its way. Things are changing in the photography world – we now have so much access to information, and I like it like that.

Who are your mentors?

-Chip Willis (who lives in Ohio) has been a sort of internet mentor to me. I was incredibly inspired by his work for a very long time before we even spoke. He has always been supportive of me, even though sometimes my work looks a lot like his!

-Also, Giulio Sciorio has been a great mentor and teacher. He is a long time pro and an awesome photographer. He specializes in hybrid photography and has shown me the ropes over the past few months. It’s been an amazing learning experience. He’s taught me a lot about the business aspects of photography as well.

-Robert Bradshaw, my boss at Photogroup, has also been a great mentor. He is a wealth of knowledge, and he hired me on even though I had never shot in a studio before and knew absolutely nothing about studio photography. Over the past year he has taken a lot of time to teach me everything he knows and I am incredibly grateful. 

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Are you shooting more studio work now?

I used to shoot only natural light but have taken up studio light in the past year. I like it because I have more control and can manipulate it and make odd shapes and shadows. Honestly, I love them both, just not together.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I will have to quote Ira Glass on this one: 

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

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When I ask Kristen what inspires her she mentions hip-hop music, old films and Kubric. When I ask about her thoughts on the future, she only mentions plans through May. I think that might just be the secret to her success.

Kristen is represented by Wonderful Machine.

 

 

 

 

 

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Questions for Amy Holmes George, President of the Texas Photographic Society:

When was Texas Photographic Society (TPS) founded and can you tell us how it came to be?
The Austin Photo Co-op was formed in the early 1980s by a small group of photographers who banded together for cooperative film purchasing purposes. They reorganized in 1984 and incorporated under the name of the Texas Photographic Society. Within two years, TPS had acquired over one hundred members, and the Society attained “not-for-profit” status from the IRS. Later, in 1989, the bylaws were amended to provide for a voting Board of Directors and President who would work collectively to formulate and execute TPS programs, services, policies and procedures.

Pool of Tears

Kat Moser

How is TPS run?
For over twenty years, D. Clarke Evans has served as President of TPS. During this time, he steered the organization, its Board and the membership, while also implementing many significant initiatives. Under his leadership, TPS became a model non-profit organization, garnering the society “State Wide Provider Status” from the Texas Commission on the Arts. After two decades of exceptional contributions, Clarke has decided to retire from this position effective January 2014, when he will assume the meritorious title of “President Emeritus.” I will then transition into the role of President, and Clarke has graciously agreed to assist the Board as it forges ahead.

Naturally, as you can imagine, TPS is now undergoing a critical evolution as we prepare for our future under new leadership. Our Board of Directors will operate as a “working board” with the mission of “shared leadership”. As we embark on this exciting journey, I am thrilled to be in the company of long-standing Board members Jean Caslin (Caslin Gregory & Associates in Houston) and Amanda Smith (A Smith Gallery in Johnson City), who will act as Vice President and Treasurer respectively. We, working in concert with the rest of the Board, aspire to revitalize and reinvent TPS.

What’s your role in TPS?
I currently represent TPS as Vice President of the Board and have held this position since 2010, serving previously as a member of the Board of Directors and the Advisory Council (since 2005). With a BFA in Photography and Graphic Design, I also have recently taken on the task of designing our exhibition catalogs and other printed materials.

My experiences as a member of the National Board of Directors of the Society for Photographic Education have afforded me a broad perspective on the field. With an MFA in photography, and as an exhibiting photographer and educator, I am keenly interested in helping shape the future direction of TPS.

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Chere Pafford

What’s the ultimate goal of TPS?
TPS offers photographers with meaningful resources, exposure, publicity, exhibition opportunities and a community of like-minded artists.

TPS seems to be geared toward the Fine Art Photography community.  Would you say that’s accurate?  And what are your thoughts on appealing to Fine Art Photographers rather than, say, commercial based photographers?
Yes, I would agree that TPS appeals to fine art photographers. TPS does not want to be exclusive, but our programming tends to attract more folks in the fine arts realm. However, many commercial photographers who also produce personal work often seek out TPS to support those activities as well. Ultimately, TPS provides a venue for photographers to share their work with others via our website, newsletter, e-zine, exhibitions and accompanying catalogs. The capacity to network, promote, publish and exhibit is especially valuable for artists, and this kind of exposure is what we offer our members.

There are quite a few “big name” photographers who are TPS members, what do you think it is about Texas Photographic Society that appeals to them?
I think that these photographers believe in our mission, find promise in our future and acknowledge their relationship with TPS as both sustaining and mutually beneficial. Over the years, several of these well established photographers have participated in the Members’ Print Program, led workshops, donated works to our print auction and juried exhibitions for TPS.

TPS offers some great competitions with cash prizes and prestigious judges,  as well as workshops.  Can you elaborate more on that?
The Members’ Only Show and The International Competition are TPS’ signature exhibitions, and we have invited internationally acclaimed experts in the field of photography to jury these annual shows. We have also sponsored themed exhibitions, some of which include: Our Town, Cell Phone Photography, Alternative Processes, Big Bend, Captivar La Luz, Best Shot and Childhood. Most of these shows are installed in a gallery or alternative space; however, we do host virtual exhibitions on our website as well. It has always been important to TPS that we provide professional exhibition venues for our members’ work and award them for their artistic accomplishments.

Marilyn Maxwell_TPS 22 The International Competition

Marilyn Maxwell

How does TPS pick jurors for its exhibitions and instructors for its workshops?
Generally, jurors and instructors are recommended by members of the Board. Although, we also welcome suggestions from our membership.

Would you say the economy has affected some of the things TPS used to be able to offer?
Certainly. And as a result, TPS is currently re-visioning itself. Over time, we aim to re-imagine our present brand and identity, expand our programming in relevant and exciting ways, refresh the vision and functionality of our website, and boost and reactivate our membership. Simply put, new technologies in photography coupled with an overwhelming social media presence have challenged us to thoughtfully reconsider our audience and their ever-changing needs.

During this time of re-visioning, TPS is reaching out to photographers, as we want to hear from them! We would like to better understand what programs and services they want and need from us.

[Writer’s note:  Amy Holmes George can be contacted at: amy@texasphoto.org]

El Playon, El Salvador 1988

Salvadoran peasants displaced  by the war survive day to day by sifting through the refuse of others in a place that was notorious as a death squad body dump just a few years earlier. One day they hope it will be safe to return to farm their abandoned cornfields. 

Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1988

Donna DeCesare is a documentary photographer, author, and educator known for her conflict work in Central America, and the spread of gangs between Latin America and the US. Her new book Unsettled / Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gang a memoir of thirty years covering gang members and their families. She is the recipient of the 2013 Maria Moors Cabot Prize for her work in Latin American.

Pavon Prison Guatemala
A gang member in an isolation cage–located in a special unit for prisoners who have been threatened by other inmates.

Tell me about your beginning in photography.
The first pictures I made were with my dad in the darkroom developing photos of my grandfather. I don’t tell that story a lot. I was five and my grandfather had passed away before I was born. I was the first grandchild and I was named for him. He was Donato DeCesare and I was Donna DeCesare. That’s how I met my grandfather in the ether of developer. It was magical. Every photographer talks about that, about seeing the image come up, but to have my namesake come up in the chemistry, that was special. And he was from southern Italy and he had a garden – it was a picture of him with his tomato plants. I remember it very well.

After that it (photography) became a hobby. My dad bought me my first camera. I took pictures when we went on vacations. It was a way of escaping. I read books and took pictures to escape from the chaos that was my childhood.

I loved my grandmother’s stories. I loved to listen. I was curious. My cousins called me “Nosy-Parker” because they thought I parked my nose in other people’s business. That was the beginning of my interest and approach in stories. I was five visiting my relatives. They were my family, but I didn’t know them. I had permission to be there and ask questions even though they were strangers.

And then I went to graduate school. I studied English Literature. I thought I was going to be a college professor. But I went to northern Ireland with a few friends at Christmas, and I started taking pictures there and it was different. These weren’t snapshots anymore. It was really what’s going on in the streets in the world. Why can’t this friend not go to the home of the other friend? Because they were from different sides of the conflict. I had studied Irish literature. Everything to do with Ireland was interesting to me. Not just the conflict. The street kids, all the aspects of life, the fallout from the conflict, but also the things that partly caused it.

I wanted to be in the world doing stuff with real people, people who were not just from the elite class.

I came back to the US and worked in book publishing for a couple of years, because with a literature degree that ‘s what you do. After that experience in Northern Ireland I knew I didn’t want to be in an ivory tower. I wanted to be in the world doing stuff with real people, people who were not just from the elite class. I filed that away, but I also thought I’ll never make a living at this. So I worked in publishing because what else would you do with a literature degree? I saved up my vacation time every year. We got 3 weeks of vacation and 2 weeks of sick leave, and I never got sick, and took 5 weeks and went to Northern Ireland to photograph and write and sell my pictures. After doing that a couple of times I was convinced that was what I really wanted to do.

I tell my students this all the time…no matter how bad the economic situation is – don’t be worried about security when you’re 20, you’ve got your whole life to worry.

I did take one class with Fred Ritchin the first year ICP offered a program. I took a workshop with Gilles Peress. Apart from that I was totally self-taught. Fred told me at some point that if you’re serious about this you just have to go. I quit my job and he was horrified when I told him, but it was the best decision I could ever have made. And I tell my students this all the time, when you’re young, no matter how bad the economic situation is – don’t be worried about security when you’re 20, you’ve got your whole life to worry. Now is when you should take risks and find what you’re passionate about.

The moment when I quit I was designing book covers. I was the associate art director, so when I left I was still freelancing book cover design. I was photographing writers because I knew a lot of them through my job with Penguin. I photographed Irish musicians. I started photographing for the Irish Echo, a newspaper that focused on Irish Americans and Irish immigrants. I was writing and photographing from the beginning.

In the course of doing a story for the Irish newspaper, I met some refugees in a sanctuary church in California that some Irish-American nuns ran and that was how I got interested in Central America. Life is such a journey, and I tell my students this too, you meet people and then you take different turns in the road.

El Salvador / Honduras border, El Poy, El Salvador, 1988
Salvadoran families make their way to the the village of Guarjila in a caravan of buses, after leaving the Mesa Grand refugee camp in Honduras.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1988

What was it that resonated so much with you?
I was engaged in Northern Ireland because there was a lot of injustice in the situation. The British were not behaving very well. And in Central America the United States was involved. These people were telling me horrifying stories. And our government is supporting this? Can they be, really? I wanted to see for myself.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said “Donna, please don’t forget my people.” That got into my heart.

I met a woman who was going by the name Monica at the time. When I was done with the story and leaving she looked me straight in the eyes and said “Donna, please don’t forget my people.” That got into my heart. She gave me a bookmark with Msgr. Romero, the bishop that was killed in El Salvador. And she had written that on it as well. “Donna, please don’t forget my people.”

A year later I went to see the show at ICP that Susan Meiselas and Harry Mattison had put together and then I found that bookmark and I felt like somebody is telling me that I should go there. It was a message. Somehow in my heart that was really what I wanted to do.

I went to Costa Rica first because I didn’t speak Spanish fluently. I didn’t want to go to a country at war without speaking the language. I spent six months in Costa Rica. I traveled to Nicaragua and stayed in villages. That’s how I learned Spanish. I learned it in high school, but I was not fluent. I could read it but couldn’t speak or understand. I was hopeless at other aspects of it. I really learned by immersion.

San JosŽ Las Flores, Chalatenango El Salvador, 1988
Children mingle with insurgents in the rebel-held territory.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1988

At any point did you doubt yourself, that this is what you wanted to do?
I really didn’t. I was on an adventure. I was meeting indigenous people in Costa Rica. I was doing stories, too. I started stringing for the Christian Science Monitor. I spent some time in a village in Nicaragua as well. I would go back for weddings and stuff.

This was a village where some of the population were in the army fighting the contras up north. It was quiet and safe there, but you could see the effects of the war on the village. And I felt, and this is funny because it’s completely different, an indigenous village really, but I felt everything about their life was like the stories my Italian grandmother told me about growing up in southern Italy. They carried water on their heads in italy too from the well. Gathered wood for cook fires. They slaughtered animals.

I felt like I was in my grandmother’s life, going back in time.

My grandmother was the youngest and her father let her hang out with the boys, she was the shepherd and went out with the animals. So, here I am in this village where people were doing these things that were the same rituals described to me. They looked different because of the setting, but were so reminiscent of the stories I heard from my grandmother I felt like I was in my grandmother’s life, going back in time. I was soaking that up and loving photographing it. And I gained confidence in my Spanish too. At first you’re embarrassed, you know, but people are kind and peasants are not judgmental. They were just so happy I was trying. When I said something right they would applaud. So I gained confidence and I had my first dreams in Spanish, so I was starting to think in the language as well.

Ventura, California, 1994
At the end of visiting day at the California Youth Authority facility where she is serving a sentence for drug related robbery, sixteen-year-old Jessica Diaz embraces her mother, Carmen, and her son, Carlos.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1994

What came next?
I moved to El Salvador. That was challenging at first, too. Before I had gone to Central America, I went to see editors in New York. I had been working for a lot of different of people. I had a pretty good portfolio from northern Ireland. So I went to Robert Stevens at TIME magazine, I went to see Kathy Ryan at the New York Times Magazine and people back then would make an appointment and talk to you. I got to talk to all of them despite being a nobody photographer. There were no promises. All of them said, “Stay in touch. Here’s our number. If you get anything call us and we’ll take a look.” I was just happy I had been able to see them in person.

When I got down to Central America it was a question of learning the country. One of the ways we found work was networking with other reporters. You meet the people at the wire services because they always know what’s happening. You do your own research and reporting. I reached out to NGOs like UNICEF. And then at the hotel you meet the reporters that fly in. They needed a fixer – someone who knew the story, knew the country, had contacts and could take the photographs. It helped that the editors remembered me from my visit to New York. Even though there was a lot of competition, it was the hot spot of the time.

Little by little getting to know people, I began piecing it together.

Little by little getting to know people, I began piecing it together. I worked for a photo agency that was wonderful, committed to issues, but not good at business. Impact Visuals, I was part of that cooperative. They got my film developed and then when things did heat up I was called on when contract photographers weren’t available. I did a lot of work for newspapers, magazines, and der Spiegel used me a lot. They loved my work. The photo editor used to say to me, “I know we mostly want head shots of politicians, that’s what we run in the magazine, but we love being able to support a photographer like you by giving you this assignment that then you can do this other work.”

How did the gang war come into it?
The first gang member I met in my life was in El Salvador. He was a young man who was HIV positive and had been deported from Los Angeles. He was from the 18th street gang. He had tattoos, and I had never seen anyone in El Salvador with tattoos so he stood out. Tattoos are now a Salvadorian phenomenon, but back then it was a Los Angeles thing.

We talked and he told me about how he grew up and his mother had tried to prevent him from getting into the war, so she took him to LA where he had gotten involved in a gang because they beat him up at school. Then he got involved with drugs, selling and using. He claims he got HIV from getting tattoos in prison, but he also was an IV drug user.

I filed that in the back of my mind, because he said you should go to LA. “Everyone there is in a gang.” And I thought, that can’t be true. There are 800,000 Salvadoreans in LA and I’m sure they’re not all gang members.

I care about conflict itself but conflict where I have some knowledge and deep connection to the issues.

But I remembered what he said and after the war ended I was facing a choice. Some editors thought I should go to Yugoslavia because that was the next conflict. My colleagues in Central America were headed there, but I didn’t see myself as primarily a conflict photographer. I care about conflict itself but conflict where I have some knowledge and deep connection to the issues. I felt like there were other people already doing that. Maybe for them the situation in Yugoslavia, because of their ethnicity, their connection to that place, and the language, would be more meaningful for them. I felt it’s Europe so it’s going to get covered. I thought what I really want to do is see what happens to the people after the war, to the diaspora community.

And I did try to pitch stories about Latino’s in New York early on and it really was just too early for that to be on editor’s radar screens. To me it was overwhelming. I lived in China Town and when I came back every Chinese restaurant has mestizo speaking Mexicans from Oaxaca and Puebla working in the kitchens. If Chinese restaurants are employing these people they are the cheapest labor in New York, cheaper even than family members. To me this was a big story, but it was a hidden story, a subtle story. It was too early. I tend to see things before it becomes a big story.

Pico Union, Los Angeles, 1994
Ivonne reads a letter from her gang-involved boyfriend after his deportation to El Salvador.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1994

You sound confident that staying local and not going to the next conflict was the right move for you. Were you that confident at the time?
I was worried about making ends meet. A friend invited me to go to Cairo. I had applied for a Dorothea Lange grant for the gang work, and it takes months for them to decide. I felt like I needed a change. Three or four days after I bought my ticket to Cairo, the first Wold Trade Center bombing happened. So I was going to Egypt. I was walking into a situation again where people were already covering things. I could stay with my friend and could get a lot of work. I stayed for three or four months. It was wonderful to deal with a different culture and I worked with translators for the first time. It was exciting and I loved it. Working with a translator works for some people, but for me it’s important to listen first. When you listen intently, you look intently.

Jocotenango, Guatemala 2001
A Holy Week procession passes village walls marked with the graffiti of the gang that dominates the zone.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2001

Tell more more about looking intently.
Everyone is so distracted with devices these days. They (students) skim and pull threads together quickly, but they miss a lot of things. People know when you’re not really present. When you give quality attention, people can tell. Everyone has a different way of doing things, but this is my ethos.

When you listen intently, you look intently.

I look first for points of connection to establish the relationship. I’m not someone who goes looking for the exotic to turn my eyes on. The exotic attracts attention, it’s shocking, it grabs us, but it also “other”izes, it distances. I’m looking for ways to make us relate, so people think this story, these people are part of our world, too.

People can’t be reporters without observing what’s going on around them, in the present moment, and give themselves fully. It’s like they all need to practice yoga and being mindful and present. I try to teach this with assignments. I have students do a soundscape of Guadalupe Street, telling the story in sounds. A lot of the reporting these days looks like music videos – it’s voice over with images and canned music.

They’re losing the capacity to approach the intangible. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and it makes them wildly uncomfortable.

Documentary is all about the uncontrollable. You have to pull the story out of life unscripted. You let the story come to you. All of that means you have to be comfortable with the unscripted. It feels like kids are branding from the womb these days. Where is the imagination? If we deny kids the space and time for that, if they are under the microscope of peer group and adults, they don’t have a place to fail spectacularly and learn. They want recipes and formulas. “Show me what an ‘A’ looks like”. Everything for them is rubrics and metrics. They’re losing the capacity to approach the intangible. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and it makes them wildly uncomfortable.

Guatemala / Mexico border, Talisman, Guatemala, 2002
Deported U.S. gang members seeking to return to the United States populate border towns along the migrant route and influence children who live in them.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2002

Tell me about collecting the work together for the book.
It’s had many iterations. It started in 1999 with the Mother Jones Award. The Soros award was to put the work on a website. The core stories for the website were done in 2005-2006. We did it in HTML and then updated them in Flash, that was a mistake.

In 2010, I published the full site with core stories, timelines, and connections with NGO’s working with these same issues. The website, Destiny’s Children, is 197 pages long. I want to find someone who knows HTML5 and keep it updated. Maybe pair with an NGO who would work with students or interns to continue the storytelling. I want to be a resource for educators because it’s history. I want to keep young people engaged in their history. The website tells four stories. Two where people successfully leave the gangs and two where people didn’t get out. (Spoiler alert) They died in the process.

The book then was telling my own story, my life. Connecting the dots between my concerns covering conflict and childhood trauma in war and what happens afterwards. We know a lot now about what children need. If they don’t get help with trauma, it sticks with them the rest of their lives. I saw the immediate impact of trauma on kids – child soldiers, the maimed and orphaned.

As macho as these gangs were, it was a “brotherhood of suffering,” their mechanism for dealing with trauma.

I came to LA, to the gangs, and these traumas were what the gang members wanted to talk about. These kids came to LA as undocumented refugees. There were no psychologists in the schools to help them. The wound is still there and if it doesn’t heal it comes up elsewhere. As macho as these gangs were, it was a “brotherhood of suffering,” their mechanism for dealing with trauma.

I wanted to write about that process to model for the next generation of photographers how you do this. How to make sure you’re safe and that you ensure the safety of the people you’re covering.

San Salvador, El Salvador, 2009
At a leadership training workshop on gender rights, a group of young women from one of the most impoverished and violent barrios, lists their suggestions for how to reduce violence in Salvadoran society.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2009

What else do the next generation of photographers need?
People want to go off and do good in other places. I went to places with a deep, almost familial connection. Even if your motivation is human rights, be more invested in the work. The media is more democratized and available. The voiceless now have cameras and tape recorders. They might need a bridge to the mainstream, but we need to include them as active agents in their own stories.

The voiceless now have cameras and tape recorders. They might need a bridge to the mainstream, but we need to include them as active agents in their own stories.

There’s a project I worked on in Colombia, Desearte Paz project of the Colombo Americano in Medellin Colombia. The idea was to bring an artist to work with local students on an issue close to them. We have an academic conference of sorts about it and then create. It was transformative for me. A group of teens who were in a youth photography group, and art students who thought photojournalism was “porno miseria”. They produced an amazing piece. Even the conceptual art students found the experiential component was important.

Portadown, Northern Ireland 1984
When the Orange Order loyalist group attempted to march through the Catholic Nationalist neighborhood known as “the tunnel” they were repelled by the community. Rioting broke out spreading thoughout the city and this woman fled her home.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1984

Any advice for young photographers wanting to do this kind of work?
Start in your own community. They will hold you accountable for the quality of your reporting. No matter where we go we have to have ethical discussions about the work, how it affects local people, and the issue at large. Students learn to be good journalists by practicing in their own community. They will be challenged by their editors and the people they cover. Students see what wins awards, and are eager to do that work, but they need to learn here first. Injustice exists here, too. Once you have the skills and have learned to be responsible, you take that with you. Main street America is the world in a microcosm. You can report on the world, by reporting on your community.

Also know who you are. One of the assignments I give my students is to do an autobiography in photos. Self-exploration of your experiences and how that affects their photography.

My brother was in a bad accident when I was a child and sustained a head injury. I was the one to tell my parents to stop the car. It forced me to grow up emotionally. In some ways my need to photograph kids who are marginalized comes from that experience, of watching him struggle. If you are conscious of yourself earlier it helps drive you. Get in the habit of thinking about your past experiences early in life and connect it to what you’re doing now.

Main street America is the world in a microcosm. You can report on the world, by reporting on your community.

Students today are missing a sense of history. I don’t know if it’s the education system. They’re so focused on the future. This attitude of: You have to get to the next thing first if you want to win. It’s destructive. At UT we have so many resources – The HRC, the Benson Latin American Collection, the Briscoe Center for American History, the LBJ Library. These places contain information and artifacts that can’t be found on Wikipedia.

Why is the Cabot such an important award for you?
This award is meaningful for me. This is the Pulitzer for covering Latin America. It used to be that every New York Times bureau reporter who stayed there for more than five years got one. It used to be white men, gray-haired, emanances from Harvard and Yale would hand this thing out, but there’s been a switch. Now it’s a network of journalists from American and Latin America judging this. There’s still an emphasis on the word, but Meiselas got it before me. I hope this marks a shift in recognizing photography for the award. It’s humbling. A great honor. It’s the most gratifying award to win. I feel so very proud and happy. I’m being honored, not as the gringa journalist, but I’m of both places and embraced by both places.

El Playon, El Salvador 1988
Salvadoran peasants displaced by the war survive day to day by sifting through the refuse of others in a place that was notorious as a death squad body dump just a few years earlier. One day they hope it will be safe to return to farm their abandoned cornfields.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1988

What does it mean to be a woman in photojournalism?
When you’re at the top of your game you’re kind of an “honorary man”. Sexism is complicated to show and prove.

I tell my students to look at photographers’ whose work you admire. Then look at the photographers’ whose lifestyle you covet. Do these two things line up?

When you look at the spectrum of women in the industry, a lot of female newspaper photographers have families. Those that cover the world are fully present to the work and that inhibits relationships.

I tell my students to look at photographers’ whose work you admire. Then look at the photographers’ whose lifestyle you covet. Do these two things line up? Not always and you have to be proactive to make anything work.

I still think that men have an easier time flying around because the wife is taking care of the home front. It’s not an impossible idea to have both, but it’s a balancing act. To deny that isn’t being realistic. Some female photographers become editors as a way to stay connected to the work and world they love and have the stability to have a family. What’s not to like about that?

What comes next?
I’m speaking about the book and the Cabot. I have a fledgling project with sociology students at UT about Latin America. It will be nice to explore countries I haven’t been to or worked in. A lot of it will be about things that have happened in the past and the relationship between memory and landscape. Maybe I’ll flop but it’s always about trying.

You can read (and hear) more about Donna and her groundbreaking work in this article from the Texas Observer. Some of Donna’s work is on display this month as part of FotoSeptiembre at La Peña in Austin. Donna will also give a lecture and book signing at the Harry Ransom Center on September 26, 2013.

©WyattMcspaddenCowboy

For the past year I’ve had the pleasure of knowing one of my favorite photographers working today. Wyatt McSpadden is enormously talented and also down to earth.  We met for eggs, coffee, and biscuits one morning and in his Texas accent, Wyatt told me stories of his career.

How did you get your start in photography?
I started out working for an eccentric millionaire in Amarillo, a guy by the name of Stanley Marsh 3.  It was 1971 and I was just one of the hippies that worked out on his ranch estate mowing lawns and doing odd jobs. He always had a photographer around too. I had a Minolta SRT 71 camera and I didn’t know what I was doing but there was all this crazy stuff going on around Amarillo.

In 1974, when the art collective Ant Farm started burying Cadillacs in the ground out on Interstate 40, I was documenting that. Every time the design of the tail fin changed, they buried a new Cadillac.  Who ever saw people burying cars in the ground?

This is what I was around and I had a camera and Stanley was buying the film so I was just taking pictures.  I had no agenda.  Through the years the Cadillac Ranch became kind of a phenomenon.  I met famous photographers who flew there to do fashion spreads.

It was really my first documentary photography.  I didn’t think of it like that at the time, but it turns out that’s what it was.

Talk about your longtime collaboration with Texas Monthly.
In 1978 Nancy McMillen, the associate art director of Texas Monthly, called Stanley’s office and asked about shooting him and she wanted a recommendation for a photographer. How could any of us have known just what a fateful call this was? That’s how I met her.  She worked there for 23 years.

Nancy contacted me and of course I was thrilled. All my work had been for local clients, printers, feed yards, small ad agencies – certainly nothing so grand as Texas Monthly. I set up my white background and had Stanley model hats from the enormous collection in his cavernous closet.  And there it was, I had my first pictures in Texas Monthly. A full page! I’ve dragged this old yellowed tear sheet around for 35 years. What a great subject.  He was willing to do anything.

Nancy and I married in 1992, the luckiest day of my life and I’ve somehow managed to keep that Texas Monthly connection alive and well.  That was the first thing I ever did for them, so it has great significance to me. I wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for Texas Monthly. At least not the career I’ve had. I’ve been very lucky.

 I wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for Texas Monthly.  At least not the career I’ve had.  I’ve been very lucky.

I did marry into the art department, but in a real way it made me step up my game. Nancy is a very discerning art director and photo editor and if I came walking in there with some junk she’d have tossed me out!  I’m sure people talked about it but it really was a situation where you don’t bring your B game!

You probably had more to prove.
And it’s still that way.  It’s amazing to have a relationship with a magazine for 35 years and still be just as eager.

How did it come full circle recently?
Stanley Marsh had been implicated in inappropriate conduct with young boys.  This story came out and Texas Monthly elected to do a major piece about it.  I had photographed Marsh dozens of times, and I had lots and lots of pictures of him in my files.  Some I hadn’t paid much attention to, but I found one that was shockingly appropriate of him for the story, that I’d taken 25 years ago in 1989.

I was looking through my files trying to find pictures of Stanley that Texas Monthly might want to use and there was one that had been published before but it wasn’t the right feel for the story. On the bottom of that strip of four two and a quarter negatives was a negative that looked sort of interesting so I went to Holland to get it scanned. When it came back I thought THIS is the picture that they should run.  But I didn’t show it to them then; I sent the other image thinking that would be piling it on. I didn’t want Stanley to come off looking too bad. As if I had anything to do with that…the article told the tale.

Texas Monthly sent me to Houston to photograph the lawyer who had sued him on behalf of 10 boys.  This guy’s name is Anthony “The Shark” Buzbee and his office is on the 73rd floor of a 75 floor building.  The tallest building in Texas located in downtown Houston, and he’s got half the floor.

My assistant Will Phillips and I left Austin at 6:30 in the morning and drove to Houston, went to his huge office arriving to find the conference rooms full, so we set up a 9’ seamless in his office.  The space was so big we never disturbed him.

Buzbee is super slick and extremely aware of his image. We were in his office for 2 ½ hours but all I was getting out of him was this “I’m Tony Buzbee, I’m fighting for the little guy” expression.  While we were getting set up in his office he was out front talking to his secretary when I overheard a woman say to him, “You look just like Gerard Butler!”

I had spotted a possible setting out front and thought, when we finish in Buzbee’s office I’ll get one more shot, but by the time we were done, I was just beat.  My assistant Will said, “Don’t you want to do this other shot?’ so I set up and was on the ground in his secretary’s office with him standing between the doors.  I’m getting nothing out of him until it suddenly came to me and I said, “Oh Tony, you look just like Gerard Butler!” And this is what I got, which is perfect!

We shot something like 300 pictures and the 297thone was the only one I liked. When I saw that image I thought, I’ll let Texas Monthly use the other picture of Stanley because this pair of images makes them both look notorious. I was very lucky to have Will along with me because even though I was done, he pushed me to do more. That’s part of the photographer-assistant relationship I’m certainly glad to have.

I had these feelings of regret about what had become of Mr. Marsh as well as curiosity about the guy who helped bring him down.  It’s kind of an amazing story for me and it pivots around being in the photography business for a long time. Texas Monthly used an image I took 25 years ago and one I took just 3 weeks ago to support it.  It’s a very rare thing to have a relationship like that with a magazine.

What’s another memorable Texas Monthly story you’ve done?
This was the Bandidos, a motor cycle gang and an important member had passed away so they kept him on ice for longer than they normally would so they could have the funeral for him on Memorial Day weekend and all these Bandidos came in from all over the country.  We set up white seamless at the funeral home in one of the viewing rooms that wasn’t being used. Skip Hollingsworth the writer and I would go out and ask people if we could do a portrait of them.  This was 2-3:00 in the afternoon with all these bad ass bikers and their scary girlfriends or wives. Everything was going fine but as the day went on they started drinking in the funeral home parking lot.  Then the whole vibe changed. By about sun down it was like, let’s get out of here while we still can in one piece!

The next day they had the procession.  I was desperate to find a place to photograph.  It was a Saturday morning on the 410 loop around San Antonio.  Will was with me and across the road there was what looked like a junkyard with a cherry picker with a sign on it that said “Rent Me.”  We woke this guy up and said “I have to have this thing in 20 minutes!”  We paid him $200, and got me up on the cherry picker.  I was shooting medium format film and three minutes later, here they come. What an amazing situation to get into.

Film.  Loading backs.  12 frames.  That’s how you did it.  That’s how I did it.

Besides bikers and eccentric millionaires, you’re also quite known for your love of and documentation of the Texas barbecue culture. When you started out photographing BBQ, did you plan to put the images into a book or did that just happen organically?
When Kreuz moved in 1999 out of what is now the Smitty’s building, my buddies and I were so crushed and sad. I went every day for a week and just shot black and whites.  So that was probably the foundation for the barbecue book.  There were assignments throughout the years where I had probably 1/3 of the pictures for the book before we had a book deal.  It was great fun and it wasn’t like being on assignment where you have to get something.  Nancy did the design so it was a real collaboration for us.

Last week I stumbled upon an old negative of Louie Muellers BBQ (legendary Texas barbecue joint) that I shot when I was still living in Amarillo. It was 1980 and a seed company salesman took us to there for lunch.  I didn’t know anything about Louie Muellers, I didn’t know anything about real barbecue but walked in there and wow, look at this place! This negative has great meaning to me because barbecue has become such a part of my work life.  It makes me glad I haven’t thrown anything away.

Do you still shoot film for your commercial and editorial work?
I don’t unless it’s a personal project. There’s just no demand for it anymore.  Everything needs to happen so fast, plus it’s more expensive.  The BBQ book I did a few years ago was all film shot with RZ67, but I was paying for that out of my own pocket.  It made me very selective about what I shot, unlike shooting digital, where you just shoot too much.  Cause why not?  The problem with that approach is you pay for it in front of the computer.  Another thing about digital is you would shoot a Polaroid and stop but with digital you’re working all your shit out in the camera.  You got 10 frames but it took 70 to get where you wanted to be and you still have to look at it all one way or another.

I’ve got thousands of negatives, many of them pictures of my kids, pictures of my now wife, my ex wife.  And I wonder… but I don’t know, I’ll be dead and gone but those negatives somehow seem more permanent to me than pictures that are stored on a computer or on a cloud.  Somebody will probably look through my negatives- my kids, my wife, but I don’t know who’s going to look through my digital files just as a matter of history and family history.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about Facebook as silly as it is, is that I can put up things you wouldn’t normally see.  Whether it’s old stuff or outtakes or quirky stuff or something from a story.  I’ve got all kinds of pictures, just throw them out there and people can like them or not.  Facebook has sort of changed the meaning of the word “friend” and the meaning of the word “like”.  But still, I love it when people like my photos.  It’s just how needy we are.

You read there have been more pictures taken last year than in the whole history of photography…but where are they?

I still get the same tingle when I see a picture in print that I did when I first saw a picture- something of mine

For almost a year of my life the future was very uncertain.  Of course it still is…but for other reasons.  I’m back in a place where I’m going to pretend I’m gonna live forever like we all do.  It’s also like okay…I’m 60…how did I get here?  What am I going to do?  And I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.  Try to stay healthy.  Photography’s a physical business, but I still love doing it and I think that’s the bottom line for me that I still get the same tingle when I see a picture in print that I did when I first saw a picture, something of mine.

When you were diagnosed with life threatening cancer the Austin photo community and Dan Winters rallied around you with a print auction to raise money to help with your medical bills.  Can you talk about that?  Did you know Dan before the event?
That was probably the most magical night of my life. Nancy and I had been down for the first week of radiation treatments, then drove back to Austin on a Friday, went home and changed clothes and went down to Charla Woods’ studio.  We were absolutely blown away.  It was astonishing.  I had met Dan before, I wouldn’t say that I knew him but I knew his work.  He’s one of those I-wish-I-had-shot-that guys. The work he had donated, the people who participated, it was an astonishing collection of great, great photography.  Perfectly hung like everything that Dan does.  He’s someone who achieves a certain level of perfection in everything that he does, whether it’s minor or major.  But this…it was totally unexpected and an unbelievable night.  They sold everything on the wall.  It was a very meaningful experience and we still have this deep feeling of gratitude for what he did and for all the people who came and participated.

A friend of ours, Kathy Marcus, had started letting people know about my cancer.  If  you’re self employed, health insurance is a real challenge.  We were insured but with a $10,000 deductable and expenses unknown.  So Kathy got the ball rolling and Dan got wind of it and he started putting it together.  He didn’t ask us if we wanted him to, he just started putting it together and Nancy and I talked about it, gosh, is this right?  And then we thought, don’t be crazy!  If Dan Winters wants to do this, by God who’s going to stop him!  It was truly one of the most magical experiences of my life and in the midst of the crummiest of times it really was an amazing thing.

I’m going to stick around so I can use this damn camera, whatever it takes!

Do you have a favorite item in your camera bag or anything unusual?
I do love the D800.  I’m a real late adopter in the digital stuff and I waited until Nikon came out with a full sized chip.  Last year I shot that Willie Nelson cover for Texas Monthly so I rented the D800 and the files were so amazing that I thought well …what the hell.  Plus at the time I was six months out of treatment and I thought I’m going to get this camera because I’m going to stick around.  I’m going to stick around so I can use this damn camera, whatever it takes!  I do love that camera and a lot of time it’s overkill file size, so I don’t use it for everything, but when something really great happens it’s so fun to have it on that camera.

In a way it means I’m sort of pre-judging a job.  Is this worthy of the D800 for the full treatment? And there’s a practical side to that too.  If it’s not going to go that big then why shoot a 36MP 104MP TIFF file so you get extra churn time on the computer.  But if it’s something really great…I did this story for Texas Monthly back in September and I took my son Stuart with me to assist and to shoot too (cowboy stuff) so I had my D800 and I rented a D800.  We stumbled upon this (sky and riders) and this image will go up the size of a billboard.  You can shoot these in the dark.

What have you learned from being in this business for so long?
You’re scrambling around trying to find work and it’s not any different for me.  Part of the learning curve whether your 60 or 30, we’re all scrapping for the same gigs in one way or another.  When I was 30 I thought, “When I’m 60 it will be different.  I’ll have this reputation and this stable of clients.” But that’s not how it is.  The scramble never stops.

Really?
I don’t think so.  It certainly does for some people. I don’t have a rep, I’ve never had a rep. I never thought my work was the kind that a rep would handle. I don’t know why that is.  My work is kind of quirky and doesn’t fit into a hard category. But that’s just how it is. You can think of a couple photographers in town that don’t have to scramble and then you can think of a thousand that do. So that’s where most of us are.

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Visual storytelling encompasses various mediums, from homemade keepsakes to professionally composed photographs, to imagined otherworldly scenes. Peggy Weiss‘ work in digital collage layers these kinds of images to create work that is at once familiar and dreamlike. Weiss uses her own photography as well as the snapshots of friends’ photo albums of yesteryear and new digital collage techniques to create her pieces. Weiss has also begun to add layers of painted details to her collages.

Weiss received her education at the University of Texas and Laguna Gloria Art School in Austin and has remained here, exhibiting her works and expanding her mediums. I  met with Weiss at her studio space in the Canopy building where we discussed her work.

When did you begin photographing and why?
In the days before Photoshop, I hand-colored prints and old photos, using those great Marshall’s Oil Paints. That was when I started collecting vintage photos. I had fun with the paints, but I found it very limiting–I wanted to take the process further. With the advent of computers and Photoshop, I had the tools I needed. I then started photographing images to use in my compositions, along with the old photos.

So, when did you create your first digital collage?
My first collage was in 2004, the year my mom died. I had an old picture of her and my dad that I scanned, and I started playing around with it. I’ve reworked that image over the years, and it’s now one of my pieces in the Harry Ransom Center Photography Collection.

I talked to you a little about how your Friends & Strangers series and know that you used old photos are inspiration. Where did the images that inspired your photos come from?
Old photos have always spoken to me. I started with my family’s old photos, then my friend’s family photographs. When I exhausted those, I scoured junk shops and eBay for more.  The Family, Friends and Strangers series is ongoing, although finding old photos to work with is getting more difficult.

Usually, when I start a piece, I have no preconceived notion of what I’m going to do.

What is the process in making them?
I collect photos, scan them, and put them in a library on the computer. When I find a window of time, I’ll select an image to start working on in Photoshop. I shoot constantly with my Sony Nex 7, and archive these images for backgrounds, skies and other elements to use in a collage. Usually, when I start a piece, I have no preconceived notion of what I’m going to do. The process is very experimental and organic, and just comes out of my crazy head.  I add layer after layer, after layer, sometimes ending with as many as 100 layers in one image.  The beauty of Photoshop is “command z,” the undo command. I can delete anything that doesn’t work and then try something new.

You mentioned that you have started to paint on some of the prints. What does this allow you to do?
Painting on top of the photo is just adding another layer, creating an effect you can’t get on the computer. It enlivens the piece and gives it texture.  I’m getting bolder with this process, and I’m collaborating with a young painter; we’re having fun with it.

What do you think digital collage gives you that just photography cannot?
As a photographer and collage artist, new techniques and technology allow me to fulfill my desire to create stories. I can’t help playing with my pictures. When I look at a photo, I think about how I would alter it, and what other photos would be good to combine with it. One photo might have a person’s expression I like, but the body isn’t working for the scene. So, off with their head, and onto another body. (Growing up with three sisters, we played paper dolls endlessly.)

When you photograph to use your work in your digital collages, do you go out with an idea of what you need for a certain collage or do you use a particular one of your photos to inspire a digital collage?
Some of both. I’m always on the lookout for something appealing to use in a collage…a strange sky, a dog, a long fence. I have a friend with a great collection of mid-century modern furniture and I’ve been to his house several times to photograph his vintage stuff–TV, chairs, lamps, fabric.

As a photographer and collage artist, new techniques and technology allow me to fulfill my desire to create stories

At first glance, I thought My Morning Swim series were photographs because they are less surreal than your other series. Did you take the photos for My Morning Swim? Where did the inspiration for these come from?
My Morning Swim was sort of accidental. I was on my way out the door to swim at Barton Springs, and spotted my son’s GoPro camera on his desk, so I took it. I swam laps with it on my head, not really knowing what images I was getting. The stills from the video were too low res to do anything with, but I loved the underwater images of the other swimmers. I started taking single shots with it, and swam with it 6 or 7 times that summer. I then digitally enhanced the frames selected for the series.

Will you describe your collaboration with your son you have coming up?
We’re starting work on an art video that will be part of an upcoming show at Davis Gallery, Austin.  My son, Aaron, is a film maker, and has agreed to help his mum transfer a vision to video. Characters from my collages will come alive (think Pee Wee’s Playhouse meets David Lynch). It will be about a 5 minute loop.

What do you hope your art will look like in a year? Or five?
I like pursuing new techniques and technologies.

I like taking pictures.

I like transforming an image into something new and unique.

I’m pretty sure I’ll just continue down that road and see where it takes me.

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O. Rufus Lovett, Part 1: Early Days, Texas Monthly and Beauty in Long Term Projects

This is part 1 of a 2-part interview by guest contributor Matt Valentine. 

When I reach O. Rufus Lovett by phone, I warn that I’ve just had oral surgery and might have difficulty speaking clearly. “I might talk a little funny,” I say, “because I’ve got this mouth full of stitches.”

“Well I talk funny because I’ve lived in East Texas a long time,” he says.

His voice is just one component of Lovett’s disarming southern charm—he speaks slowly but with a quick wit, like the narrator in a Mark Twain story. No doubt that charisma has ingratiated him to the many communities he’s documented throughout Texas and the southern United States, on magazine and newspaper assignments, and for personal projects that have so far produced three books.

Lovett’s photography has been widely published and exhibited, and is in the permanent collections at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Birmingham Museum of Art. His documentary work for Texas Monthly has been recognized by the Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards, administered by Columbia University. For more than three decades, Lovett has taught photography at Kilgore College, a two-year school in East Texas. In 2005, the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation of San Antonio honored his work as a photo educator, naming him a Piper Professor.

What’s the “O” for in O. Rufus Lovett?

My first name is an initial. It’s just O, period. My mother was named Opal. My Dad was also named Opal. They named my older sister Opal when she was born. And then they gave me just the O initial instead of the name Opal.

When did you first start taking photos? Or were you too young to remember?

My high school was actually on a university campus, so we had student teachers and so forth. My dad just worked up the hill, in his office at the university. My mom taught there in the English Department. And so everybody kind of knew everybody—you know, small town, Jacksonville, Alabama. I was approached by the English teacher — who was the sponsor of the newspaper — and another lady who sponsored the yearbook. I was asked if I would like to do photographs for those publications. And I thought — yeah, that’d be cool, you know. They thought they had a perfect “in,” because my dad had a ways and a means of getting the work done, since his photography studio was just up the hill at the university. And so that’s kind of where I began getting serious about photography, because I was doing production work from the get-go, and printing with my dad at the university was a major start and major influence on what I was doing.

Left: Opal Lovett. Right: O. Rufus Lovett, age 16.

You included one of your father’s photographs as a frontispiece in your first book, Weeping Mary, and your own photographs seem to share some of the same mood. Do you think your father’s photography influenced your work in other ways, in other projects?

Yeah, quite a bit. He was a portrait photographer as well, and photographed events, and I would go along with him and assist. I used to carry the old blue flashbulbs along, back when he was shooting a Crown Graphic, and I would collect the spent flashbulbs. Or I would stand on a chair or table somewhere with an auxiliary flash to fill in light. So he taught me at the beginning how to master lighting techniques, as guidelines. I learned a great deal from him in terms of good basic fundamental things.

Also, you know, his work was very applied photographic work. It was meant to sell and send out for Associated Press news releases for the university. But occasionally, he would go out and photograph on his own, and those are the photographs I admire most of his work. But he didn’t do that as often—he was consumed with his work at the university and he loved every bit of it. So that work that he did as an applied photographer was his personal work as well. And so it meant a lot to him, and I did learn so much from those early experiences as a child. And watching him print in the darkroom. I can remember sitting on a stool, just barely able to look over the sink, watching the prints come up in the developer, which was always fascinating as a child.

 Your photographs in Weeping Mary are a very intimate portrayal of an insular community, a tiny town that is almost entirely African American. As a pretty conspicuous outsider, how did you approach that project?

I don’t really start out with a game plan when I’m documenting a group of folks or, in this case, I guess you’d call them subcultures within our culture. In the case of Weeping Mary, it was critical that I visited many times without a camera to get to know the folks before I even got a camera out.

© O Rufus Lovett

It was an interesting situation there, because people want to know “why are you taking our picture?” and often times people in a community of that nature don’t understand the beauty an outsider might see within that community. It’s difficult for anyone who lives there to comprehend that. Not due to ignorance — anyone would feel the same way, like “why would you be photographing me?” There was just a certain beauty there that I wanted to document on many levels.

To introduce myself, I just tried to get to know the folks, being from a small town certainly helped my ability to communicate, get along with the people there. I made great friends there. That was the beginning of that—just getting to know the people. Now, in that situation also, it was kind of unique, because a friend of mine over in Nacogdoches, Texas, which is not far from Weeping Mary, was the editor and publisher of a newspaper, and as a matter of fact, he’s the one who introduced me to Weeping Mary. He mentioned the name of the community, which piqued my interest, and he wanted to do a couple little picture page spreads about the community. So we did one called “Children of Weeping Mary”, and another one, “Christmas at Weeping Mary,” and published that in the newspaper, and then that of course gave me some credibility, because if we’re doing a picture story about the children, or about Christmas at Weeping Mary, you can introduce that as a project, and make a purpose for my being there.

And then I continued for years after that. Continued photographing and visiting, and enjoying that community, and then it developed into the Weeping Mary book.

The photos seem really naturalistic. But some of these were made with a little more sophisticated artificial lighting equipment, right?

It’s always the situation that dictates what you’re going to do about lighting in a photograph. Often times, I would use the existing light of course, and many times a tripod. And other times, depending on the situation, I would use an auxiliary flash, often modified by a small softbox, to soften the quality of the light, but still nice and directional, and marry that light with the ambient light in the environment.

I seem to remember a story about one person you photographed there as a child who wasn’t very happy with that photo as he got older.

There were a couple of cases like that. It might have been the swimmers photograph. Two little boys in their underpants, swimming in a little backyard pool. Later, they were kinda teased at school about that photograph. I mean, it was published in Texas Monthly. The teacher brought it in — not to embarrass them, but to show them that Weeping Mary was published. It kind of embarrassed them a little bit, so as those guys grew a little older, they expressed, uh, a disinterest in that photograph. But nothing ever came of that, other than that they didn’t appreciate it right away, because it kinda embarrassed them when they were in school. I have a feeling they’re fine with it now. They grew up to be rather large football players, and so luckily they didn’t hold it against me too badly.

Your second book, Kilgore Rangerettes, grew out of long photo essay you did for Texas Monthly—an unusually long essay, by contemporary standards. Do you think there are some stories that are really best told with many photographs?

This has a lot to do with the economics often times, you know. Magazines have to support themselves, and they have to make room for advertising, and they have only so much space. It is unusual that so many photographs were used in that particular photo essay. Scott Dadich was the creative designer at that time at Texas Monthly, and I think he did a great job of placing as many photographs as he placed in a relatively small space. I was surprised that they used that many, but using that grid format that they used on some of the pages, he was able to introduce numerous images, which was a good idea I think in this case–to define the project well. There was quite a volume of work over a period of time, a decade or so, I suppose.

© O. Rufus Lovett

But you know, space constraints have a lot to do with that long photo essay occurring in publications these days, which is why it’s so important for a photographer, when he’s out photographing a project, especially for a magazine, to make every picture kind of a stand-alone type of photograph. I teach about this in my photojournalism classes. In a photo essay, each photograph is like a paragraph, and then several paragraphs make up the essay. And so, if each photograph can stand alone as a complete thought, and then when put together with other photographs, makes sense, that allows magazines to complete a photo essay with a brief amount of space. So that’s an important issue and always will be, and yeah, I can remember the old days when Life magazine and Look magazine had these really expensive photo essays. It was beautiful to see them. We don’t see that happen much anymore these days, unfortunately. But I’m sure it’s mostly economics.

You’ve published in many magazines and newspapers, but it seems to me that Texas Monthly has really been the best home for your work. Would you characterize it that way?

Yeah I would say so. And there’s some really interesting human condition kind of work — which is my main emphasis I suppose — with People magazine, of all publications. They’ll do these little features on communities and different folks from time to time and they’re quite nice. They’re usually found in the back of the magazine behind all of the celebrity stuff. I did this really neat story with People one time — it was a 70-year-old man who went back to 1st grade to learn how to read, up in Missouri.

It was a wonderful little photo essay as it turns out. And then I’ve done stuff for Gourmet up in New York. I did this whole thing on Dominican culture and Dominican food. As a matter of fact that’s how we got this barbecue project going — a story I was doing for Gourmet with Robb Walsh (acclaimed food writer). That’s when we first met. Then later we did something for Saveur Magazine on barbecue, and we decided to carry it on and do that BBQ Crossroads book. Magazine editorial work sometimes influences you in a variety of directions—you never know how that’s gonna snowball and what it’s going to bring next. It’s kind of an interesting aspect of my career. The magazine work I’ve been able to do, I’ve been privileged to do it. Starting with Texas Monthly and going from there. People usually just call Texas Monthly to get to me. I don’t even have a website.

One of the things I love about the Kilgore Rangerettes book is that there are several photos of the Rangerettes using cameras. For me, the cameras locate the photographs in time, because the uniforms don’t change that much, and the setting doesn’t change much, and these black and white photos could really be from forty or fifty years ago—except we’re reminded that this is actually contemporary, because we see one of the Rangerettes using a  little point-and-shoot camera or a digital camera. Was that your intention? Including that little detail as sort of a time stamp?

I’ve always been a little fascinated, for some reason, with tourists taking pictures of scenes. When I travelled to Asia I enjoyed photographing the tourists that were photographing the monuments, or their friends in front of the monument. I just found something delightful about photographing photographers photographing what they’re interested in. And so that kind of carried through, because the Rangerettes constantly take pictures of one another, whenever they go to an event or even a rehearsal or whatever the occasion, they’re constantly taking photographs of themselves. I just find an interesting irony in those kind of photographs. But you’re right, that is a key that kind of illustrates a timeline for those photographs. Otherwise they’re pretty much timeless, unless you look real closely at the type of bleachers that are in the stands, or the kind of pavement that’s more contemporary than a 1940s or 50s type pavement, you may not know what decade some of those photographs were made in.

Your new book, Barbecue Crossroads, is a significant departure from the first two. The most immediately obvious technical difference is that these are color photographs, whereas your previous work is predominantly black and white. Can you talk about the decision to use color?

Originally, Rob Walsh the writer — he and I travelled from Texas to the Carolinas and back, including Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, a little bit of Georgia and the Carolinas, and a couple places in Texas as well — and we originally were gonna do the book in black and white. It was gonna be, you know, kind of an edgy black and white kind of thing. But as I started photographing this, the color played such an important role in these little joints, and with the food subjects themselves, so I made the decision to request the change on that and just do the whole thing in color, which I think fit that project well. That was a decision based on the environment and the circumstances, which I felt were best interpreted in color.

However, one other difference between that book and the other two is that I was working with someone else, a wonderful, very knowledgeable food writer, and a lot of those photographs dealt with illustrating his points of view about the places that we went to. My point of view was also teased in there as well, in some of the other maybe more pictorial type images, and some of the documentary work. A lot of auxiliary lighting was used, however not always–I used a lot of window light when it was possible. There’s a lot of variety of techniques that were used in making that photographic documentary on the Barbecue Crossroads book.

I learned this from Mary Ellen Mark years ago, that circumstances dictate everything in terms of how your gonna light it, what medium you’re gonna use. It was all done digitally, instead of film. That played an important role, and the fact that I wanted to use color, so that made some of those difficult circumstances a little more convenient to photograph in, just in terms of the equipment alone. There were a lot of technical influences that dealt with the reasons why we decided to go with color on that.

(Editor’s note: Join us tomorrow when we publish Part 2 of this interview. Lovett talks with Valentine about how teaching photography is changing, and what he sees as the future for his students.)


While completing his MFA in Creative Writing at NYU, Matt Valentine worked full time for the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, designing and maintaining their “digital darkroom” facilities. He continues to pursue simultaneous careers in writing and photography. Matt’s short stories have won national awards, including (most recently) the 2012 Montana Prize for Fiction. His portraits of writers have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Boston Review, Outside Magazine, O (the Oprah Magazine), and on dozens of book jackets. A Lecturer for the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, he teaches two undergraduate courses: “Writing Narratives” and “Photographic Narratives.”