Chasing Shadows

In his first book of photographs, James Evans captures the essence of Big Bend—not just its epic landscapes, but the maverick souls who make West Texas one of the last truly unique places on earth.

March 2003By Comments

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 after the Phillies won the 1980 World Series and turned it south. “I left right from the party in the Philadelphia streets. It’s all on one roll of film, guys dancing drunk on the tops of cars and the next picture is on the beach in Galveston.” Two weeks of beach bumming later he landed in Corpus Christi, where he rented a darkroom and became friends with Eccles, a young photographer with a stronger sense of direction. When Eccles left for New York and took a job assisting Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz, James stayed in Corpus, envisioning a smaller career shooting weddings and school pictures.

A chance to help Eccles on a portrait Leibovitz was taking of San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros for Vanity Fair, in 1984, finally woke him up. It was his first look at the big leagues, and he didn’t see Leibovitz do anything he couldn’t do. “Right after that,” James said, “I thought I needed to get out of Corpus.” Within a few weeks he was assisting Austin commercial photographer Tomás Pantin, learning how to print to Pantin’s exacting standards during fourteen-hour days in the darkroom.

James made his first trip to Big Bend in 1986. His heart instantly took to the desert, its vastness, tempo, light, and scattered communities of renegades and frontier people. All that was keeping him in Austin was a studio that wasn’t bringing in any money and a lease with a landlord who would be happy to see him go; he’d developed a habit of driving golf balls with a three-iron inside the studio. He needed to get outdoors. On a second trip, two years later, he found out about an opening for a cook at the Gage Hotel kitchen, and he decided to move to Marathon. It took a while to get settled: “The first six months, I didn’t take one picture. I was really intimidated. Where do you start? Mainly, when I got days off, I camped out. For the first two years I spent as much time outside as inside, just watching the light and how it affected things.” He became a fixture around town, known for his welding goggles that he’d outfitted with orange lens filters to teach himself how to see in black and white. He left the Gage and opened up his gallery in 1990, initially calling it Lovegene’s, a gesture to his new wife. Time passed, Gene and James divorced, and as James grew to understand the place and the people, he started producing the body of work collected in Big Bend Pictures.

THE PICTURES IN HIS BOOK tell more than the story of a boy and his desert. The great statement of James’s work is in the portraits of the maverick souls who have found heaven in a last-chance-for-gas-and-serenity desert outpost. James himself is one of those people. While other photographers have taken their shots and passed on, he makes the same sacrifices as his subjects to live in this place he loves. His photographs acknowledge that shared struggle in the subjects’ easy smiles; in the way a stiff-necked ranch hand will put up with his playfulness or a little kid will throw it right back at him. With his landscapes, James often includes a human element: a dirt road, a fence line, something that shows people’s effect on the place. But in his portraits he achieves a level of comfort with his subjects that allows you to read in their faces the desert’s effect on them.

The images are worlds away from Richard Avedon’s In the American West series, the work James’s portraiture is most often compared to. Avedon, a fashion photographer, took pictures of the same kinds of people James does, only Avedon cast them in harsh light against a sterile white background. He removed them from their context and made them look like freaks. James shoots people where they live, in mostly natural light, showing proud eyes against open skies. And his respect is implicit in the portraits’ formal poses. “He gives these people credit for their intelligence and the purpose of their lives,” said Keith Carter, whose own career as a photographer has done for East Texas much the same thing James’s has for West Texas. “It’s the difference between exploitation and exploration.”

“The only person that both James and I have photographed is this old man in Boquillas,” said Eccles, who has shot everybody from John Travolta to George W. Bush. “He’s got a long white beard and is kind of a hunchback. His arm had been broken, and it’s badly deformed. I don’t know that man’s name, but James does, and that’s why his picture is better than mine.” Sure enough, when asked about that picture, James said, “What? Andrew doesn’t remember Juan Valdez?”

James can’t hide his affection for these people, and he doesn’t try. In a sense, every picture is an homage to something or someone. Cottonwood (Homage to Reagan Bradshaw) is a picture of a tree that reminded him of a photograph taken by his friend Bradshaw, who died in a plane crash in 1998. His critter series, the Death of Lucille French Clark, is a tribute to the landlady who rented his gallery space to him for $100 a month. After Lucille died, in 1991, James photographed an assortment of spiders and snakes on the floor and the furniture of her abandoned home. “People started saying that the animals represented nature reclaiming the house, and it sounded really kind of smart,” said James. “I certainly didn’t put that much thought into it, but I agreed with all of it. I said, ‘Man, how did you know? I didn’t think I was being so obvious.'” But he claims there’s no such grand plan behind his work. He says he simply takes pictures of whatever’s around, whenever it’s right, to keep from getting bored.

“I remember one time James and I went into the national park together, and it was a horrible trip,” said Eccles. “We argued the whole time. Then a tremendous storm hit, and it looked like lightning was hitting all around us. And there went James, marching away from the truck, into the lightning, with a metal tripod on his shoulder. And at that point, I didn’t care if it hit him or not, but I yelled at him to come back. He didn’t even turn around. He just hollered back, ‘This is how you get the great shots, bud!’ started laughing, and kept right on going.”

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