Emotional Seeing

The one constant of online photography forums is that people are always ready to tell you how to make good photographs. There is sage advice literally at your fingertips. So many experts and all are hanging out on amateur photography sites. Are they experts? Not so much. They all seem to have read the same photography fundamentals manual. That must count for something.

Just to be clear I’m not an expert, only a seeker of knowledge. My chops as a non-professional photographer are meager. My advice about ‘how to do photography’ is worth absolutely nothing. Actually I do know one thing. When someone sees a photograph for the first time they form an instant opinion of the image. That immediate evaluation has something to do with emotion and nothing at all to do with technical details. That comes later.

As every good marketer will tell you the emotional hook is what keeps people interested in something long enough to consider other possibilities. Unfortunately for those of us who are trying to learn photography informally, the internet gurus don’t get it. They know the formula and nothing else matters.

Are there any options for the unfortunate autodidact wannabe photographer? Yes, there are. My poor advice is to learn a few fundamentals then go on about making the images you find interesting. As I warned earlier my advice is worth absolutely nothing.

If you persist in making photographs for long enough you will either get better or quit. I’m still on the knife edge myself.

Hard Landscape

As with many people in the US, I’ve been watching the terrible aftermath of hurricane Harvey on the Houston area. My home in San Antonio, TX was spared the effects of the storm. However I lived in Houston for some years and even went through a hurricane there. Alicia was much smaller than Harvey but I got the full experience of wind, flooding, even having the eye of the storm pass directly over my house. I will never do anything like that again.

Petroleum is at the core of business in Houston and much of Texas. People who live in the state understand the compromise involved in extracting mineral wealth from the earth. It is a messy activity that inevitably degrades the environment. So far the economic benefit of petroleum wealth has exceeded the damage for most citizens here. Regardless, it is difficult to persuade people to act against their own economic interests to regulate the business.

Outside of the cities, Texas is sparsely populated, rural and strongly maintains traditional values. The vastness and rugged beauty of the land is hard to convey. Just as an example, I enjoy spending time in the Big Bend region. In order to get to the Bend for a sunrise photo I have to leave San Antonio at 2:00am and drive 70-80 miles an hour the whole way. It is worth every minute of effort to experience the beauty found there.

Part of my route through West Texas usually takes me across the Edwards Plateau. Some areas of the plateau are known as the Texas Hill Country. They are the beautiful heart of Central Texas. Areas further north and west are rugged ranch lands dotted with tracts of oil and gas production. These are the places I like to photograph.

Out on the plateau you see mostly oil service vehicles and crude oil tankers on the roads by day, nothing at night. There are also stationary engines driving huge compressors working 24/7 squeezing natural gas into liquid. The remnants of obsolete equipment is often scattered around if you look hard enough in the right places.

Angular industrial tools set against barren natural landscape makes for dramatic photographs. Usually there are no people out there to ask questions. As they say, access is everything when it comes to taking photographs.

Chance Encounter

Billy Faier - musician
Billy Faier – musician
Sometimes it is easy to forget that life is a journey full of unexpected twists. One day on a whim or boredom, I drove four hundred miles from San Antonio to the West Texas crossroads town of Marathon. I pass through Marathon once or twice a year on my way to Big Bend. It’s a good place to stop for coffee. In fact it is the last place to stop for anything for more than a hundred miles when heading into the Bend.

Sitting on the patio of my regular coffee joint was an old man playing the banjo with such eloquence that I had to sit down and listen. Funny, none of the other patrons seemed to notice him there. He was playing and singing tunes straight out of the East Coast folk scene of the 1940s and 50s. Given where he was in far West Texas it was like he had beamed in from another place and time.

That is how I made the acquaintance of Billy Faier. He was genuinely a veteran folk singer, friend of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, traveling companion of Woodie Guthrie, contemporary of Pete Seeger and practitioner of progressive politics. He was old school in ways that are hard to comprehend for the twenty first century. Now at eighty four or eighty five years old he was transplanted to another place altogether.

We spoke for half an hour. He had a bright cheerful manner with plenty of stories which he punctuated with simply beautiful solo banjo music. I bought a couple CDs and told him I’d see him next time I was out that way. Sadly he died before I got back to Marathon. I won’t forget him anytime soon.