In its quarter century of publication, Texas Monthly has viewed the state with anger, humor, sorrow, and compassion, and the 33 images in this portfolio do the same. Largely photojournalistic and occasionally archival, they reveal the endless variety beneath our unifying mantle of Texanness.
We take collective pride in our history, but we also acknowledge and even embrace our keen and sundry differences. We are young and old; rural and urban; black, white, Hispanic, and more. We love our families, our food, and our fun. We work in hospitals and factories, on the streets and by the sea. We weather the here and now and ponder the hereafter. Some of us are the agents of murder; others, the victims.
The selection of photographs documents the diversity of Texans far and wide, past and present, and yet the overall picture that emerges is that of a unifier even stronger than our place of birth: our shared humanity.
Images from the Twenty-fifth anniversary issue are not available online.
The Stories Behind the Pictures
Sisters and Brothers by Jno. Trlica
Granger, “Posed for Posterity” September 1988
THE SON OF CZECH IMMIGRANTS, JNO. TRLICA (pronounced “John Truh-leesa”) became an apprentice photographer in 1902 and went on to practice his trade for more than half a century in the Central Texas cotton-farming community of Granger. Equipped with the equivalent of a third-grade education, Trlica had similarly modest formal training in photography: six 3-day seminars for small-town professionals offered by the Eastman Kodak company every summer from 1909 until 1915, part of a concerted corporate campaign to bring portrait photography—until then a luxury for affluent families—within the reach of everyone. Trlica learned the lesson of inclusiveness well, offering what he called “bread-and-butter grade” portraits—four- by five-inch prints formatted as postcards—at a price affordable to the town’s Czech dirt farmers and black and Hispanic laborers. Regardless of race or income, Trlica’s subjects all stood on the same cheap carpet in front of the same cheesy faux-Victorian painted backdrop. But this portrait of twin brothers paired with their older sisters (who probably received their calling in the Czech Catholic church down the street from Trlica’s Main Street studio) reveals that beneath the photographer’s businesslike approach was an uncanny psychological penetration. The minimalist symmetry of the pose allows us to focus on the subtleties of individual faces—one nun offers a wry grimace while the other is poignantly thoughtful—and intimate gestures, like the linking of the boys’ arms. Trlica has posthumously acquired an almost cultlike status among contemporary photographers as a pioneer mass-marketer whose artistry transcended his own simple ambitions. Michael Ennis
Baptist Church Quartet by Esther Bubley
Tomball, “Texas, 1945 or The Sad Cowboy” December 1981
TEXANS OF A CERTAIN AGE—A PRETTY ADVANCED AGE, at this point—will remember the Humble Oil Company as the best-loved of the big oil companies. Humble was founded by Texans who soon sold it to Standard Oil of New Jersey, the giant Rockefeller-controlled corporation now called Exxon, but all through the middle decades of the twentieth century, it was allowed to operate with a separate name and local management. Even if Humble wasn’t Texas owned, it felt like a Texas company. It was paternalistic.
This picture was taken in a Humble company town—Tomball, north of Houston—by a Standard Oil photographer, Esther Bubley. During the forties, Standard Oil, operating with typical grandeur, hired the greatest photography editor ever, Roy Stryker, to assemble a staff of photographers and document Standard’s operations all over the world. Pictures from the amazing archive of 85,000 images, many from Texas, were published in company publications, in national magazines (this one first appeared in the long-forgotten Coronet), or in most cases, nowhere at all. Bubley was sent to live in Tomball for several months and closely document every aspect of life there. She produced the most extensive examination of one subject in the entire Standard Oil photographic archive.
In 1981, when I first came across the picture of the church quartet, it seemed to me to represent a vanished Texas. There were no more oil-company towns, small-town culture no longer dominated Texas, the Houston suburbs were lapping up against the edges of Tomball, and people didn’t dress like that any more. Now I’m not so sure. What the picture most obviously evokes is devout fundamentalist Christianity—hardly a fading force in Texas life. Hard-working, true-believing middle-class people who don’t care to put a lot of effort into being urban and worldly still occupy the center of Texas culture. They just look different now. Nicholas Lemann
Heap O Cream by Itinerant Photographer
Corpus Christi, “What the Stranger Saw” August 1987
LIKE ALL JOURNALISTIC ENTERPRISES, Texas Monthly’s chief preoccupation is the present moment. But now and again the magazine relaxes the rules and looks squarely into the past. The photograph of the Depression-era Corpus Christi Heap O Cream ice-cream parlor was part of a 1987 photo essay culled from a book by Sybil Miller titled Itinerant Photographer. The book documented the work of an unknown artist, a workaday photographer who drifted through Corpus Christi in 1934 and took pictures of local businesses that he then sold to the proprietors. The images were plain-spoken, starkly composed, and so rigorously observant of their time that, many years later, their unremembered creator seems to have been a kind of recording angel. Stephen Harrigan
Shoe Store by Robert A. Widdicombe
Isla Mujeres, Mexico,“Ambient Color” April 1985
IN 1983 ROBERT WIDDICOMBE AND HIS WIFE traveled around Mexico in a 1965 panel truck, camping along the way to make their money last longer while he took photographs. “I took a lot of pictures of interiors—churches, shops, restaurants—places inhabited by people but without the people in them,” Widdicombe says. “I thought by showing how people decorated their environment I would be showing a lot about them and their culture.” One evening on Isla Mujeres he happened to find a shoe store with a wall full of shoes. “I was floored by the colors and the display,” he says. “I asked