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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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7 Responses to “Wyatt McSpadden”

  1. Great story! Thank you!

    Reply

  2. Great write-up, Kimberly!

    Reply

  3. Thanks for an excellent interview with one of the best damned photographers anywhere. The great thing about getting Wyatt talking is that he always has something interesting to say.

    Reply

  4. I’ve never met Mr. McSpadden but I’ve followed his work for as long as its been in TM. I’d forgotten about the Stanley Marsh hats page until seeing it here but it certainly jogged my recall. You can tell from his work, which lacks pretense and bullshit, that that’s the kind of guy he is. And this interview bears that out.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  5. Seriously, such a advantageous online site.

    Reply

  6. Excellent article. To those who know him..and bask in his light on an early Sunday morning at the Great Roy Kizer G.C in Austin Texas..Mr. McSpadden is always “ready to scramble”..muni tough!

    Reply

  7. The advice is quite useful.

    Reply

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