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.
When traveling on the Edwards Plateau at night there are no lights to be seen. Except for the edges along the interstate highway it is nearly unpopulated. You can drive for an hour or more in the darkness and never pass another vehicle. During the day there are oil field service trucks and crude oil tankers on the plateau but at night nothing.
After leaving the town of Sheffield forty miles behind, I notice there is something lighting up the desert. Because there are so few lights on the plateau the glow looks like a city. There are no cities out here. On a hunch I turn off on a narrow strip of pavement towards the lights. After a few minutes I drive up to a huge natural gas production facility that is literally in the middle of nowhere.
As I get closer the ground starts to vibrate and the noise level becomes intense. This plant collects raw natural gas from wells and liquefies it using huge compressors. There is a row of stationary engines driving the compressors; each engine is as tall as a two story building. They are the source of the vibrations and sound. Liquefied natural gas is sometimes called White Oil. White gold more likely for those riding this petroleum boom.
My goal on that morning was to shoot sunrise along the border. Dryden Texas, my destination, was still sixty miles away but the opportunity to photograph the isolated plant was too good to ignore. I spent an hour walking and shooting and then hurried along to catch the sunrise.
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From my home in San Antonio I can drive to most parts of Texas to shoot photographs and return the same day. Usually I head northwest onto the Edwards Plateau and beyond to the Texas Bend country. My inclination is to go as far west as I can and still return in one day. For me there is a sense of freedom when traveling in the less populated parts of West Texas and the borderlands. It is a vast area with few resources so you need to be able to manage on your own.
Logistically, getting to West Texas for a sunrise photograph without an overnight stay means starting out at two or three AM. A shooting plan is a necessity when traveling hours to make a few photographs. It is simply too far to drive without knowing what you expect to accomplish. My first task is always to work my plan. Then as time and distance permit, to scout and shoot documentary images for future trips.
I could spend a couple of days a week on the road and never get to photograph all the interesting places I’d like to see. Being a regional photographer in Texas means there is plenty of room to roam around.
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