Flatlander

I live in Austin now, but it was the eccentric characters, rumbling thunderclouds, and infinite horizon of Amarillo that made me fall in love with photography thirty years ago.

I’VE ALWAYS HAD THE FEELING that Amarillo was more kin to the farm communities up through the Great Plains than any other town in Texas. The city sits lonely at the top of the state, surrounded by crops, cattle, and sky. For me, Amarillo and the Panhandle are where the real Texas is.

My dad was a Baptist grocery man; his dad opened Amarillo’s first market, Central Grocery. My mom was raised Catholic; her folks farmed east of town. Dad saw that his four kids were well fed, and Mom made sure we got a proper Catholic education. I worked at the grocery store after school from the age of ten until I graduated high school, in 1970. I spent much of that time caught up in the small but tight hippie group that had sprung up in those psychedelic years. I liked being a hippie and had no use for college. My real education began when Stanley Marsh 3 hired me to work odd jobs at his home, Toad Hall. Marsh is the oil tycoon, media mogul, art patron, and merry prankster who commissioned Cadillac Ranch. I’d never known anyone like him. His world was full of artists, eccentrics, intellectuals, cowboys, and his kids. He wanted photographs of everything that was happening, and that’s where I got the bug to begin shooting.

I started my photography business in 1976 and nearly twenty years later left Amarillo for Austin. People have an attitude down south about the Panhandle, as if living there is a hardship. To this day, they offer condolences when they learn where I’m from. I love to go back home to see family and visit with my dear old pals, but it only takes a few days before my friends and I start bickering about religion and politics. It’s a conservative world up there—Jesus and George W. country—and I don’t belong anymore.

When I returned to the Panhandle this fall to make these photos, I had no script, no story, no shot list—just my personal history. I decided to feel my way around for a week, shooting what caught my eye as I did when I first fell in love with photography. Back then, I used to travel north out of Amarillo on photo assignments, shooting wheat crops, gas wells, and feed yards up through the Panhandle and into Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. I loved the easy escape from town, the big sky and the empty roads. I learned to drive hard and shoot fast. Austin is my home now, the perfect place for an old hippie photographer. But a flatlander needs to get away from those hills and trees every once in a while and be sure the perfect horizon is still there.

Captions to photo images.
Images are not available online, a copy of the December 2005 issue can be ordered from Texas Monthly Back Issues .

• This grain elevator is outside Landergin, thirty miles west of Amarillo on Interstate 40. I’d driven by it a hundred times and never taken a picture. It’s the only vertical structure for miles.

• Housing developments show how well defined Amarillo’s limits are. The city grows to a line and stops.

• One of the latest projects of Stanley Marsh 3’s sits atop a rise on the northwest side of town. Stanley has said, “Art is a system of unanticipated rewards.”

• My father, George McSpadden, at his painting easel in the corner of his garage.

• Stanley Marsh 3, my former boss and Amarillo’s merry prankster. His SUV has a stuffed chicken and fox on top of it.

• Sisters Rita and Magdalena, residents of Prayer Town, a community of nuns near Channing. They were in Amarillo for the Tri-State Fair and Rodeo.

• This sign is a relic of Route 66, which was the lifeblood of Amarillo until I-40 was built, in the sixties. Amarillo Boulevard was once lined with dozens of hotels and restaurants, but this is one of only a few that remain.

• Saul Chabira was hanging out at a friend’s car lot while I was taking a picture nearby. He came over, curious, so I took his portrait. When he learned that I wasn’t working for a TV station, he quickly lost interest in me.

• I used to take out for the edge of town when the thunderstorms would roll in from the west. The more ominous the cloud, the more eager I was to photograph it. I chased this one east of Claude, about twenty miles out of Amarillo.

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