A photograph says: Look at this.
It evokes in me an immediate response (I know this place; I like this photograph) and then something ephemeral and idiosyncratic. Call it meaning.
I tell stories, and I look for them everywhere.
My family moved from Wichita Falls to Odessa, Texas, in 1954, when I was in seventh grade.
My aunt and uncle had lived in various West Texas towns since their marriage in the late forties, and my little sister and I had spent many summer months with them and my cousins. My uncle was a second-generation Halliburton man, moved from town to town until he was based in Monahans in 1959, where they bought a nice brick house on the last eastside street. Not far on the other side of the back fence was the million-barrel site, a huge failed crude oil reservoir.
In Wichita Falls, we had lived with my grandmother in an old northside neighborhood that felt like a small town. I rode the bus to parochial school. Most weekends we went to Devol, Oklahoma, to the dry-land wheat farm of my grandmother’s parents. My landscape was a trio of dusty yards: school, North Lamar Street, farm.
West Texas scared me. It was vast and windy and dry. Going west out of Odessa, we passed through a cloud of soot from a carbon-black plant. Once I saw a long scarf of tarantulas scurrying across the highway. We lived in a series of rentals on arid lots on streets with no trees. In Hadicol Camp with my aunt’s family over a summer, we kids watched for rattlers and we bathed, sequentially by age, in a washtub. We never went outside the circle of trailers, like children in a wagon train. Out there was blinding sun and scorching sand, but my aunt liked to drive out in the evenings to look for jackrabbits.
Once my aunt’s family settled down in Monahans, she made a passel of friends. She is the kind of person who makes a good time out of any reason for together. She liked me to visit and kept me close. She hauled me around to the fabric store (she was teaching me to sew), the beauty parlor (set up on a woman’s screened-in porch), the five-and-dime, the gas station. She knew someone everymothers, their children, their pastors. We went to tent revivals, and later the preachers came by to eat cold meat and pie. We dropped by houses where we drank iced tea or Dr. Pepper, and I listened to the women talk about recipes and who was sick or well or off in Dallas for spurious reasons. Sometimes there was a Halliburton party and the men danced with me and said I was getting awful pretty. I listened hard, I remembered.
My mother didn’t do any of these things. She was never well enough for friendship.
In high school, I had a bicycle and I experienced my first taste of freedom, speeding along County Road with my mouth closed tight against gnats and dust. I went to early morning Mass, I went to the library, I rode through the green grassy neighborhoods across town. My mother was sick, I was on my own. The city was on a grid, like a checkerboard. I could ride right to the edge; I turned around when the buildings stopped and the last lots were littered with broken-down cars, equipment, barrels, and trash. Once I headed out day my mother died, a fierce dust storm dirtied the sky, and later that day it rained mud. I left in 1961.
Then my aunt moved to Lubbock, and for nearly forty years I have been flying in to see her, usually in the spring when the skies are wild. We start down into Lubbock and part of me feels as if I’m coming home, though I know I am a visitor. Home is my aunt and cousins and the huge sky and the ache of my losses, but it Home is what feels familiar even if I am out of place. I’ve spent three decades and more in Oregon and Montana, and if you ask me I’ll still say I’m from West Texas. I used to think I would grow up and move away and belong somewhere else, but instead I learned that I am who I was when I used to be there, even if I a good look when I could.
Peter Brown’s “Railroad Shack Home, Fairview, Texas”
A cockeyed shack in a long plowed field sits on a pad of spring green like a placemat. It’s easier to plow around it than to tear it down. There is a real house far across the field on the horizon, and a few mature trees. All the homesteads in these photos are far away, appearing miniscule and tangential to the fields, but aren’t they the reward for the immense labor of the farms? Just above the field, a wisp of cloud seems to have carried the last of something away, whatever was left when the people who lived herecouldn’t take it anymore.
There’s a similar tiny oasis, sans house, in Rick Dingus’s “Old Home Place in a Plowed Field, Posey, Texas.” Straggly trees stick up incongruously in a huge dry field. The patch of green is like a docking station; the manipulated curvature of the horizon suggests a drop into space. It feels as if you’re viewing the landscape through a bubble window.
In Andrew John Liccardo’s “Rangeland, Near Friona, Texas” an old shack leans precipitously, echoing the foreground remnants of fence. There’s a sign on a post, but wecan’t read it and you get the feeling it is probably old news. This field is desolate, because we distant horizon.
Peter Brown’s “ David’s Garage, Olton, Texas.”
The sun is glaring, but the man in the photograph—is it picture. Metal blinds on the windows are shut tight. The trees in the background are bare, so it must be winter, but the man uniform darker than the sky.
I notice the glare and the contrast between the whitewashed concrete garage, the black cross, and the darkly-clothed figure. Two cracks run like rivulets down the walls behind the man; the old driveway is cracked and broken. This looks like a hard place to feel at ease. The man agreed to pose for the photograph, but there’s no sign of vanity. The building has his name on it, but he knows his stature is nothing next to the Lord. The cross is a promise: A good man works here, you’ll get an honest deal; and it’s a prayer, too, because some times are hard. Our view of the building, flat face front, might suggest there’s nothing behind it, but the cross is a pledge of faith.
A stranger comes: Can I take your picture? Maybe a man feels some pride, pulls his shoulders back, or maybe he is wary. What’s the picture for?
He wasn’t busy anyway.
“Burritos, Tahoka, Texas” is a photograph of an old square red brick building with tall windows boarded up. The right corner edge of the building has been re-pointed. You can see the bricks crumbling at the top of the building on the left side of the photograph. It must be dim and cool inside. An air conditioner is propped up against one of the windows. There is no sign of life today, no people, no cars, as if everyone in town has been evacuated.
How many transformations has the building gone through? First it might have been a bank or a law or insurance office, before Maybe later it was a fabric store, a thrift shop, or just an empty hull, until someone thought, Burritos.
The town won’t see a Starbucks or a McDonald’s. It won’t be gentrified. The view is stark. Maybe it’s Sunday and again and nobody had a reason to do something about the sign painted on the red bricks. The power lines stand like sentinels. Extension cords looped across the building’s face are for something occupants would need, like a television connection.
Is there a daycare next to the burrito building, or was there once upon a time? And if so, what do the children’s mothers do; where is there work? I wonder what it’s like to be a child in this parched, treeless place. You could sure ride a bike.
The play yard is full of bright plastic toys. A kiddie pool leans against the chain-link fence. There would hardly be room for children in the space. Maybe the toys will sit in the rain and hail and sun until their color is bleached away, like so many other objects in this landscape.
There is evidence of pride here, though. On the side of the building in the right background is a mural with a bright turquoise sky. Someone painted the plowed fields and barns that stretch away from this small place with its wide streets and blocky buildings.
In the Brown picture, “Last Chance Restaurant, Cotton Center, Texas” (a long-faded sign), there is yet another building that looks like a false front, with a slab of plywood where once there was a door. But there are curtains at the window and something else, maybe a television or a fan. More makeshift connections: cords from a closed window past the front, to a trailer snug against the side of the building. And look at those trees! The patches of green. Three little empty flower pots. Cars. A nearby neighbor’s place with the garage open.
Someone lives here. Someone is getting by.
A friend pointed out to me that all my stories have
In Steve Fitch’s “Windmill painting, Panhandle, Texas,” a close-up photograph of another building mural, a black windmill stands in stark contrast to the sky and flat horizon. This regional idiom represents the impact of agricultural industry on the landscape, and the wide open sky with its constantly changing moods. Without windmills there would have been no water, no farms, no upturned earth. The mural is a public sign of represented national pride when they painted rolling farmland, windmills and dramatic skies. In Texas murals, there is a humility in the way things are singled out for remembrance: Jesus (“Painting of Jesus, Hobbs, New Mexico”), windmills, skies, Indians (“Plains Indian painting along the highway, Muleshoe, Texas”; Rick Dingus’s “Buffalo Mural, Hale Center, Texas”).
In “Radio tower west of Levelland, Texas,” Fitch echoes the simple composition of his mural photograph to dramatic effect. Most of the photograph is taken up by a gray sky, a band of pink light and magnificent gray clouds pierced by a tower. The building at the base of the tower is dwarfed by the structure and the huge sky. Derricks and power lines appear as insignificant details on the horizon. The force of nature is on display in that steely sky, but the photographer seems to be saying: Look what can do. Look how powerful technology looms over the horizon. Look how we are changing.
Peter Brown turned his focus to the vast horizon, too, in “Open space, Grady, New Mexico.” What appears to be a subject reduced to just sky and land reveals more in the context of his other photographs. Here you can read the sky for clues. A storm is looming on the distant horizon. This land is notable for what is not there: no plowed, irrigated furrows; no oil pumps; no satellite towers; no roads or buildings. It goes on forever, this open space. It calls to mind a time when it would have been a sea of yellow grass.
You have to look elsewhere (Rick Dingus’s “Oilfield trash, Penwell, Texas”) to remember how progress and economic growth have too often degraded the land.
An abandoned house provides further clues to the former residents of a house chose for decoration. The wallpaper has peeled off, the framing around the door is gone, but artifacts tell us that these beauty. They pasted up a print of a landscape painting and an American flag. The painting is of a lush landscape, utterly foreign to this region. Every time the house’s residents went up the stairs they saw it, so blue, so green. Maybe it was a reminder of what they had left, maybe a dream of something they never had. Maybe it was just pretty. The image of the American flag over the doorway is on newsprint, not even a poster, but there is a poignancy to the patriotism suggested here on fragile yellow paper that, preserved by aridity, has outlasted the house’s occupancy.
And there is melancholy in oddly preserved artifacts: a doll on a cabinet near filled fruit jars (“Inside a house beneath the Caprock between Caprock and Maljimar, New Mexico”), a room scattered with mementos of athletic successes (“Trophies in an abandoned school, Bula, Texas”). These photographs of interiors evoke memory and loss. People left and never returned. It feels as if they hurried. Did they depart in a surge of despair? Did they move on and try again? One wonders how a house suddenly loses all utility, all value. One wonders if a child cried for her dolly.
Miguel Gandert and Tony Gleaton, with their emphasis on portraits (kids at play, cowboys, remind us that West Texas is alive, vibrant, and evolving. There is a gentle irony in the fact that their black and white photographs are filled with light and life. There’s no melancholy for a lost past in the faces of a family settled on the curb (Gandert’s “Parade Crowd, Western Heritage Day, Portales, New Mexico”) to await the princesses and sweethearts (“Parade, Western Heritage Day, Portales, New Mexico”) heading their way. The line-up of cowboys on lunch break in Gleaton’s “Lisa Regan’s Young Son” (family round-up, Caprock Canyons, Texas) includes a boy who looks as if he’s dressed for serious business. His expression seems to say:
Whatcha lookin at, anyway?