In the three decades that contibuting photographer Wyatt McSpadden has been shooting for Texas Monthly, the Amarillo native has trained his camera on almost every cultural icon in the state, from Bob Bullock and Ann Richards to barbecue and dance halls. Here on the Thirtieth Anniversary of his first assignment—a series of portraits of oddball philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3— our well-loved lensman shares a few of his favorite images that have been in our pages.
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I got my first assignment for Texas Monthly in 1978, when I was a 26-year-old freelance photographer in Amarillo. Senior editor Gary Cartwright was in town reporting on the T. Cullen Davis murder trial, and he had somehow worked local arts patron and eccentric Stanley Marsh 3 into his cover story. I got a call from Nancy McMillen, at that time the magazine’s art coordinator, who hired me to photograph Stanley. I had worked for Stanley for years and knew him to be a lively subject who wasn’t shy in front of a camera. We did dozens of shots of him wearing different hats from his closet, making hilarious faces. I was thrilled when the photo session turned into my first full page in Texas Monthly.
Whenever I came through Austin after that, I’d stop by the magazine’s offices to show new work to the art staff. On a visit in 1988, Nancy’s co-workers schemed to set us up on a date, which led to a four-year, long-distance love affair. (She still has Stanley’s Rolodex card with my number on it.) In 1992 we married and I moved to Austin, which happily gave me the opportunity to do more work for Texas Monthly.
It’s been an education and an inspiration to take pictures that illustrate the remarkable stories that have filled these pages. There’s the fun stuff—like shooting a smoky barbecue joint in Luling or the Stampede dance hall, in Big Spring, where Bob Wills used to play—and then the more emotional stories, like one about wounded Iraq vets at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center. I was anxious about that shoot, but the vets were so gracious and unself-conscious about their injuries that my fears evaporated. That’s part of what I love about this job: going places and meeting unusual, interesting people—whether it’s someone like Ann Richards at a campaign event, a world-class athlete like Gilbert Tuhabonye, or a group of cheerleaders in Victoria.
In my thirty years with the magazine, I’ve learned that you’ve got to be ready for whatever appears in front of you. I remember a shoot in 1994 with John Hall, the former chairman of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. I had persuaded him to come out to Lake Austin on a Sunday at dawn. The premise was that he’d stand ankle-deep in the water holding a thick book of regulations, posing as defender of the environment. But the morning’s cloud cover ruined my vision of Hall in front of a glorious sunrise. Desperately searching for an alternate solution, I encouraged him to wade deeper and deeper into the lake. He had on his church clothes, so he took off his jacket, and we inched out until the water was up to his chest. He wasn’t happy, but it turned out to be a memorable image.
Another example is the portrait of cowboy poet Buck Ramsey, from 1993. He was a sure-enough cowboy, but he’d been crippled in a riding accident as a young man. At the time of the photograph, he had recently made his first album, Rolling Uphill From Texas. We were on a ranch just west of Amarillo, and I’d already done a bunch of setups, but I still had a nagging idea about doing something with a horseman. One of Buck’s friends saddled up to help, which resulted in a single, magic frame, a combination of seat-of-the-pants creativity and a healthy measure of good luck. Being familiar with a place often provides useful insider knowledge. When I shot soprano Mary Jane Johnson, who’s from Pampa, I wanted a classic Panhandle scene, with a big Panhandle sky. I wouldn’t have thought of using the wire gate, though, had I not opened a few myself.
I never imagined I’d be a portrait photographer, but I’ve morphed into one. It’s my best kind of subject: real people. Take the shot of Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams, the barrelhouse blues piano player. When you get a face like that in front of you, you’d better take a picture. That’s also how I felt when I saw Bandido Mark M., with those amazing eyebrows, assume his defiant pose at the San Antonio funeral of Bandido Chuco.
Some people find it hard to relax in front of the camera; others do it with ease. Bob Bullock was a fine example of the latter. In the portrait I took of him, there’s a swagger that tells you something about the guy; to me he looks like a gunslinger at high noon. And there’s a picture of Kinky Friedman I love that was shot for his last column in Texas Monthly before kicking off his gubernatorial campaign. He had just killed his character in his popular mystery book series, so the Kerrville cemetery seemed like the perfect setting. It’s a different take on the Kinkster.
How the hell did thirty years go by so fast? So much of a photographer’s life is about time. These pictures capture fractions of seconds—many of them recorded back when the number of minutes the film was in the developer, the fixer, and the wash was critical to the creation of an image. Even with the transition from film to digital, I still work in fractions of seconds—but suddenly, these fractions have added up to years. That’s why I love these photographs: They’re timeless. As told to Jordan Breal