Behind the Lines

Sheriffs and Poodles

OVER 25 YEARS, Texas Monthly has published more photographs than anyone would care to count. We’ve had grand vistas of the open plains, of course, and the interiors of barbecue joints whose walls looked so smoky you could almost smell the briskets on the pit. We’ve had cityscapes and portraits of mayors and shop owners and schoolteachers. We’ve had criminals glaring from behind the bars of their cell and a beauty queen standing in a swamp near the open jaws of an alligator. We’ve had women whose hair was so big it was practically a temple on top of their head, and we’ve had newborn babies with just a bit of fuzz, and we’ve been at it long enough that some of those babies are grown now and have kids of their own. All those pictures put together are a unique record of what Texas and Texans looked like during the last quarter of this century.

As part of that record, each photograph has its place. But if I were to choose one photograph as my personal favorite, it would be Kent Barker’s portrait of Pampa’s longtime sheriff, the late Rufe Jordan, on pages 52 and 53. It’s an interior, but it seems as big as Texas. And despite the bareness of the setting—all you see is a man, a dog, a wall, a chair, and the edge of a desk—Texas is the only possible place it could be. The sheriff’s hat and boots, his Western suit, and his firmly set jaw all place him squarely in the stereotype of the old school Texas lawman. The poodle itself is the classic indulged pet, with trimmed nails and lovingly brushed ears. But the two clichés together are not jarring but irresistible, even deep. The sheriff obviously possesses supreme self-confidence, but then so does the miniature poodle! The sheriff strengthens the tiny dog just as the dog reveals the sheriff to be a man of sentiment and gentleness beneath the thick shell of cliché. The photograph is funny, yes, and improbable, but isn’t it warm and human as well? And doesn’t it expose the secret heart of Texas—the big, tough state that likes to have a little poodle dog jump into its lap?

The first photographs published in Texas Monthly  were taken by Judy Gordon, who photographed Houston television personality Marvin Zindler, and Cy Wagner, who photographed Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith. They appeared in our first issue, February 1973. Unfortunately, you have to look in our second issue to learn about Gordon and Wagner because we forgot to put any photographer’s credits in the first one. I say we forgot—and that’s possible, because there was a lot of confusion getting that first issue out—but it’s just as likely that we didn’t know what a photo credit was. To be honest, I don’t remember anything about Judy Gordon. Cy Wagner got the job because his wife, Sherry Kafka, was writing the story about Meredith. He shot the pictures so he could go along for the ride.

It would be almost two years before we published our first color photograph (not counting covers). Color photographs were significantly more expensive to print than black and white, and we couldn’t afford them. I think it’s also fair to say that it took about as long for us to learn just how important photography is to a magazine. We knew that magazines used photographs, but those of us who began the magazine were writers and editors. We tended to think of pictures as secondary to the “real” magazine, which was the words.

It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that we are devoting our twenty-fifth anniversary issue to photography. We know that the real magazine is both words and pictures and that photography and writing, at their best, each reveal what the other cannot. The major force behind our photography has always been our art director. We have had four brilliant ones—Sybil Broyles, Jim Darilek, Fred Woodward, and D. J. Stout, our current art director, who has been with us since 1987.

To the reader who sees the photographs for the first time in the magazine, it seems inevitable that they should be there. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, D.J. must understand the story. That is one thing when it is already written, but most often he must make assignments while the story exists only in the mind of the author. With only general ideas from writers and editors to go on, he must deduce the real direction of the story, imagine how the photographs can contribute, and then decide which photographer to assign. Good photographers all have individual styles that distinguish their work. Sometimes a certain style can fit a story exactly, and sometimes it’s best to push a photographer into new territory. Kent Barker, for instance, who took the portrait of Sheriff Rufe, first made his reputation with pictures of the ballet.

After a photographer turns in the pictures, D.J. must find the ones that combine the best artistry with the best interpretation of the story. Many elements come into play here. Let’s say the photograph of the story’s main character is mediocre and can’t be reshot. Now what? Or perhaps the best photo for one story looks too much like the best photo for another, or there are too many good photographs for the space allotted. Should he print them smaller to get more in, or should he use fewer, larger photographs and condemn the others, good as they are, to be lost to history?

A cover photograph presents problems all its own. You cannot simply take the best photograph you have and put it on the cover. The Sheriff Rufe image, as much as I love it, could not have been a cover. Its frame is horizontal; the cover is vertical. A clear, colorful, uncluttered image is best for the cover, and many fine photographs are exactly the opposite. D.J. was present when George and Barbara Bush were

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