Tall Tales

Photographer Laurence Parent and senior editor Joe Nick Patoski talk about climbing, the best shot, and their new book, Texas Mountains.

November 2001By and Comments

Joe Nick Patoski at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photograph by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: When was the first time you saw a mountain? Do you remember where you were and what you thought?

Laurence Parent: I was born in the mountains of New Mexico, so I guess that I saw them when I was pretty young. They must have made an impression, although I sure don’t remember my first thoughts.

Joe Nick Patoski: The mountains I remember seeing were in the Big Bend. We’d driven in my daddy’s new ‘59 Studebaker Silver Hawk from Fort Worth to San Antonio one day, then from San Antonio to Ciudad Acuña and on to Marathon the next, arriving at night. The following morning we got up and drove to Big Bend National Park and up to the Chisos Basin. I thought it was pretty cool.

texasmonthly.com: Laurence, your father was a National Park Service ranger and your mother wrote travel pieces. Do you think you may have a different perspective on the outdoors because of their influence?

LP: My parents had a huge influence on me. Growing up in beautiful National Park Service sites with parents who loved the outdoors greatly shaped what I do for a living (outdoor photography) and what I love to do for fun (hike, run, camp, and climb).

texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to publish a book on the Texas mountains?

LP: No one had ever done such a book. Some Texans don’t even realize Texas has mountains. Many others don’t realize that there are beautiful mountains in Texas besides the Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains. I wanted to surprise people. The Texas mountains have waterfalls, movie sets, pine forests, aspens, and many other surprises.

texasmonthly.com: How long did it take to come up with the material for your book and put it all together?

JNP: A little more than a couple years. I’d really been working on it for more than forty years, but just didn’t realize.

LP: Some of the photos go back to the mid-nineties (they were shot for other projects). Most, however, were shot specifically for this book beginning around mid-1999. The West Texas drought didn’t help. The schedule accelerated last fall, though, when rains finally came to West Texas. The grass greened, the air cleared, and the waterfalls flowed. I made two trips in October and November to wrap up the book that lasted 26 and 17 days each. After that, I was ready to be done.

texasmonthly.com: Joe Nick, what was involved in getting your information? Did you go on many climbs?

JNP: Lots of time was spent in libraries, online, and on the phone. But the best part of doing it was getting to go on-site. A lot of the ranges are on private land, so our research involved introducing ourselves to folks, asking permission for access, and in many cases, assuring sources that we wouldn’t identify precisely where we were lest trespassers and poachers try to go where they’re not welcome.

I should mention that the photography required getting to vantage points on peaks and pinnacles that were not necessarily the highest points in a particular range. Nonetheless, we climbed a bunch. There’s one photo Laurence took of me standing on a smaller pinnacle in the Chinatis that ran in Texas Highways (Laurence needed a model and I was the only other human around). The picture is pretty great, capturing me standing on this high point overlooking the rugged, desolate valley of the Rio Grande, with no other human being or any man-made structure in sight. What you don’t see is how I propped myself up on the rock, trying to maintain my balance, and how I was seized by a severe case of acrophobia while trying to stand still and remain calm. The wind was gusting, and I kept trying not to look down, because one false move and I was a goner. Standing across the way, on an equally perilous promontory, was Laurence, snapping away, changing cameras, loading film, trying to get the shot. It’s one thing to ramble around high points and scurry up to the top; it’s another thing to do that while carrying sixty pounds of equipment on your back. Laurence, I think, has a little mountain goat blood in him.

texasmonthly.com: Laurence, what type of format do you use? Why?

LP: I mostly use a large-format camera, 4×5, for my landscape work. Only a tiny handful of the photos in this book were done with a 35mm camera. A 4×5 reproduces larger, with greater sharpness, less grain, and potentially greater depth of field. I do use a 35mm for shooting outdoor sports, but there wasn’t any of that in this book.

texasmonthly.com: Do you find the mountains in Texas that different from the mountains in Colorado? Why or why not?

LP: The mountains in Texas are significantly lower and drier that those in Colorado. However, many of the Texas mountains have considerable relief (above the surrounding plains) and are still very impressive.

JNP: Much different. As a University of Texas at Austin professor from Germany told me recently: “We in Germany know about the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevadas, the Appalachians. We have mountains like that. But there’s nothing in Germany like the Texas mountains. That’s why we love to come here.” It’s the delicate combination of mountains and desert. Nowhere but Texas.

texasmonthly.com: What is necessary to get such spectacular shots? Can you describe a shoot for me?

LP: First and foremost, you have to be a pack mule. My camera pack usually weighs between 35 and 40 pounds just for day hikes. A lot of strenuous hiking was required for this book to reach the photo locations that I wanted. Quite a few hikes were cross-country in areas with no trails. Several shots were taken on overnight trips, and my pack weighed 60 pounds or so. Besides dragging my gear to ideal locations, I have to anticipate the light and weather to try to get the best possible images. Many times the weather does not cooperate, requiring me to repeat a trip, often several times.

texasmonthly.com: When is the best time of day to take nature shots? Why?

LP: Most commonly, the light right before, during, and after sunset works best because contrast decreases, long shadows give depth, and the light turns gold and pink. However, weather is at least as big a factor. Dramatic skies, especially from breaking storms, add immeasurably to photos.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photo in the book? Why?

JNP: I don’t really have a favorite. I love‘em all. But when I first thumbed through the book, the shots of ZH Canyon really stirred me. Sunrise on a perfect June morning, seeing and hearing and witnessing all the life in this “isolated” spot—the canyon was a veritable aviary, choked with raptors and Neotropical songbirds. It was one of the more blessed moments in my life. The photos brought it all back.

LP: Tough question. I’m not sure that I have a particular favorite. I do like the cover, in part, I guess, because it was taken during a miserable windy sunrise in a spring dust storm, which is why the light is so red—not because of a filter. Another favorite is probably the aspens shot because it was such a bear to hike to them, plus it reminds me of the New Mexico mountains, where I did a lot of my growing up.

texasmonthly.com: What was your most difficult shoot? Why?

LP: Several are contenders. The aspens shot was difficult because it required carrying my heavy gear cross-country up and down very steep, loose, and treacherous slopes. I twisted my knee when a slope shifted under me; it still hasn’t completely recovered. The shot of El Capitan taken from the summit of Guadalupe Peak required carrying my pack four and a half miles up a trail while gaining three thousand feet of elevation in a howling, frigid dust storm in January. After taking my sunset shots and getting almost hypothermic, I hiked all the way down in the dark.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite mountain range in Texas? Why?

JNP: My favorite ranges are the Franklin, Hueco, Guadalupe, Sierra Diablo, Sierra Vieja, Davis, Chinati, Chisos, Bofecillo, and Glass ranges. Each has qualities separate from the others. Laurence has convinced me that there is much more to the Quitmans than initially meets the eye. The Eagles, which parallel Interstate 10 to the south for twenty miles or so, west of Van Horn, are the most underappreciated. The view from Eagle peak was one of the most breathtaking of them all.

LP: I’m not sure that I have a single favorite. They’re all really different. Some favorites are the Sierra Vieja, Davis, Guadalupe, Chisos, Beach, Quitman, and Sierra Diablo mountains.

texasmonthly.com: If you could climb any mountain in Texas, which would it be? Why?

JNP: North Franklin Mountain. Because I haven’t done it yet.

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