WATCHING BIG BEND PHOTOGRAPHER JAMES Evans hoist his tripod onto his shoulder and traipse off into the desert one Monday in December, with gray sweatpants tucked into his boots, the hood of his kelly-green sweatshirt pulled over his head, and a red blanket tied around his neck like a cape—he looked like a slow kid's idea of a superhero—brought to mind that favored explanation for West Texas: You either get it or you don't. Big Bend is like an inside joke between God and the chosen few who view its barren expanse as the only antidote to the gotta-go rhythm of the "civilized" world. Judging from the constant laughter pouring out of James, the joke's not going over his head. As he writes in the notes to his first book of photographs, Big Bend Pictures, due out in early April from University of Texas Press, it's a place "where the misfits fit," and on this particular afternoon, I got a peek at what he meant.
I'd been waiting two days for the great desert chronicler to take a picture. We'd already blown off the deep, insightful discussion about his career and book we were supposed to have at his Marathon gallery to instead camp with some friends amid the dust, scrub, and rock on a ranch near Van Horn. It was beginning to look like we'd never get anything done. Every time I pushed James to take out his camera, he'd just laugh and say, "Hey, bud, let me worry about the photographs. You be thinking of a way to make me look mythic."
Finally, around lunchtime, he grabbed his tripod and set off without saying a word. I called for him to wait up.
"Don't worry about Super Goober," said James' sweetheart of two years, landscape artist Mary Baxter. "All of his pictures look like they were taken from some remote spot that no one has ever returned from alive, but he doesn't really go that far. We joke that he could have named his book Never More Than Thirty Feet From the Truck ." She was right. It took all of five minutes to get to where James had planted his camera stand, a flat, open stretch of desert under a tabletop of white clouds, about ten miles from the east face of the Van Horn Mountains. And there I found the real photographer.
"I like to be in a place all day," he said without looking up from his viewfinder. "I like to hike here and watch it and see what it really looks like, to get a better feel for its textures." He changed the filter on his camera lens, explaining that the right color filter is essential to bring out the contrast in the image, to differentiate little tone changes in the landscape that the film won't pick up on its own. "That's the great thing about living out here," he continued. "If you're on assignment, you've got to take the picture right then. But I get to wait for a time that's perfect, and when it comes, man, we're gone. We're going to be chasing shadows all day."
ALTHOUGH JAMES EVANS' WORK HAS shown in galleries around the country for more than ten years—and has turned up regularly since 1988 in the pages of Texas Monthly —the surest way to get at it before now was to make that long drive to his gallery and drop $500 for a favorite print. That changes with Big Bend Pictures, the most complete visual depiction of the region ever published, from the dustcover's panoramic of the Glass Mountains just north of Marathon to the myriad portraits inside, most reproduced in his favored fifteen- by fifteen-inch format, and all in his signature dry-dirt-brown tone. The book is the first to conceive of Big Bend in terms other than the Ansel Adamsstyle landscapes that fill the coffee-table volumes on bookstore shelves already. James defines the region by its people, by its ranch owners and ranch hands, bar owners and barflies, judges, drug runners, teachers, park rangers, war vets, and little kids. Portraits, therefore, rightly take up the lion's share of the book, and the subjects are all rendered with an equal measure of respect and affection.
James is 48, an unthinkable degree of seasoning for someone who seems to be permanently living out his post-college trip abroad. He stands five feet six with a red beard and hair and has an open-to-anything, tickled-by-everything quality that most people lose when their parents cut them off. Friends typically describe him as leprechaunish or impish. And if you follow him around for a day, through his gallery and darkroom, in and out of the storefronts on the main street of Marathon, or up and down mountain trails, you'll see him fall in love a dozen times. "James has always been looking for something," said his best friend, Andrew Eccles, a celebrity-portrait photographer. "Before he got to West Texas, maybe he was having trouble deciding what he wanted to photograph. But when he got there, he found it."
As kids, James and his younger brothers grew up in their mom's home in New Jersey and then Philadelphia, and he dreamed of being a machinist. But in the mid-seventies, after a friend in high school sold him a 35mm camera on the cheap, he started hanging around a drag-racing track near his mom's house and taking pictures to sell to the local sports page. Atco Raceway lifers remember him still for his flash helmet, skateboard headgear with a strobe on top to keep his hands free to steady the camera. "I liked staying up at the top end of the track, where the races finish," he said. "That's where the cars would blow up, and if you were up there, you could get a really nice series of flames. I heard more than one valve go by my ear."
For no reason he can recall, at age 26 he got into his car immediately