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Shooting Stars

For nearly thirty years, photographer Burton Wilson has never found himself without a camera when he needed one. A new book captures his view of the Austin music scene.

By June 2001Comments

Big Joe Williams at the Victory Grill
Photograph by Burton Wilson

When I stepped foot into Burton Wilson’s home, I stepped back in time. His walls are buried behind pictures he has taken throughout his life. Some of them are framed; some are hung with just a thumbtack. Most of them are black and white photographs. The really big ones are his favorites, he tells me. Burton Wilson loves to tell stories. Every picture on his wall has a story, and he remembers even the smallest detail behind each one. Not all people have something they can leave behind that tells the world how they lived. But Burton Wilson has—right there on his walls. And now with his new book, The Austin Music Scene Through the Lens of Burton Wilson, he shares his walls with the world.

LG: How did you get interested in photography?

BW: Well, I’ve always been interested in photography. I used to take a lot of pictures and then I would go into the darkroom. In the sixties the University of Texas here at Austin built a new art building, close to the football arena. They started a new course in fine arts photography taught by Russell Lee. Russell was a good friend; I knew Russell very well. He was a world-famous photographer, traveled all over the world photographing. So when he started teaching, I jumped at the opportunity to start with a professional like him. I took four semesters with him. And then when I got out, some clubs in town—one called the Vulcan Gas Company—started on Congress Avenue. The people who ran it were friends of my son. So I just moved right in and started photographing there. They were featuring rock and roll bands, which was all right with me, but they had old-time blues performers too. Old-timers like Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins and people like that who had been singing the blues forever. Well, I’d always had an interest in the blues. My wife, Katherine, and I had been collecting records and things for years. I thought that blues music was a dying art form. They sing the blues now, but it’s different than the old ones. So I just started shooting pictures of the blues musicians. It’s just a thing that I’ve been interested in for a long, long time.

LG: What was your first job as a photographer?

BW: This is a good story that I enjoy telling. Back in the days of the Vulcan Gas Company, Johnny Winter was playing there. He had a trio from Beaumont. The bill that night was Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, old-time blues musicians who had driven down from Chicago to do that gig. The Johnny Winter trio did the setup for them. Well, as it happened, Johnny Winter’s trio stole the show from the great Muddy Waters, and Muddy Waters was a famous blues performer. I had records of him back in school. Muddy Waters realized what had happened and sharpened up his second act the next night, but still, the night belonged to Johnny Winter. Well, some people realized that they should get him on tape. And so they went to the Vulcan Gas Company and asked for the best photographer and they sent them to me. They called me to do the cover for the Johnny Winter album—that’s that cover there [Wilson points to the large framed photo of Johnny Winter on his wall]. They told me exactly how they wanted Johnny Winter shot, with his various hippie costumes and his various guitars. I said that was fine with me. Johnny showed up and he had oh, about five guitars and that many different costumes. We started shooting a bunch of film. I’d do a set with him, and then we’d get a new guitar and a new costume and do it all over again. I got down to the last of the film, and he picked up an all-steel guitar. I was so intrigued with that all-steel guitar that I posed him with his face reflected in it. I said, “Well, I’ve got to do exactly what the record people want done, but I’m going to do my own thing here just once.” So I went on my own and shot that and sold it to Imperial Records and they used that photograph for the cover.

LG: So tell me about the book. How did it come about?

BW: Well, back when I was starting out at the Vulcan Gas Company, I published a book on my own that I called Burton’s Book of Blues. It was successful, but it didn’t do a whole lot. Independent books like that don’t go very far. Then Jack Ortman, who owned a bookstore downtown, suggested I publish another book. I didn’t really want to put it all together on my own, the way I did with the first one, so I told him that if he got someone else to publish it, I’d go ahead and work on it. Well, Jack got Eakin Press to reissue it. I added some new material and text—the first one didn’t have any text, only pictures—and that was it. That’s the book that I have out now, called The Austin Music Scene Through the Lens of Burton Wilson.

LG: Who wrote the text of the book?

BW: It’s mine and Jack Ortman’s. We combined eyes. I had all the statistics on the shots and did most of the text. I would shoot a band, and he would help me identify a lot of the musicians on the stage. He was great at identifying people in the photograph.

LG: You probably have hundreds of pictures of these artists. How did you decide which pictures would make it into the book?

BW: Variety and chronology. We tried to progress chronologically. We started back in the mid-sixties and went up to the nineties. Then we submitted the portfolio of the ones we wanted to Eakin Press, and they helped select the ones they wanted to print.

LG: Are there any personal favorites of yours in the book?

BW: I’m awfully fond of Big Joe Williams. He came down from Chicago, one of the big cities in the jazz world. Houston White, who was the head of the Vulcan Gas Company at that time and a good friend of the family, called me one day and said Big Joe Williams from Crawford, Mississippi, was in town. He was going to take him to lunch and wanted to know if I’d like to go along. I said, “Oh, you bet.” So I grabbed my camera and joined them. We went over to the rooming house where Big Joe was staying on East Eleventh Street and talked to him. He was very friendly; I got along very well with him. I got along with all those people very well, because I knew how to stay out of the scene. I didn’t tell them what to do, and I just let them do their thing and I just photographed them. And they appreciated that. Anyway, we went to the Victory Grill for lunch, and I got some great photographs of him. That one there is from the Victory Grill. [He points to the largest photo on his wall; it’s a black and white of Big Joe Williams. He’s looking off into the distance as if he were alone and not with two other people at his table. He looks deep in thought.] That shot there, I call my Mona Lisa shot. After that we went back to the rooming house, where he sang on the front porch with a big, swinging hammock with chains on it—very picturesque—and he moved around and I photographed him. We spent the afternoon on the porch, and I had a few frames left. I said, “Big Joe, if I asked you to pose for me, what would you do?” Without saying a word, he took his guitar, walked to a vacant automobile in an abandoned lot next door, opened the door and sat down, and started playing his guitar. That told me the whole story. The guitar and the automobile had been his whole life. He’d just drive around the country and play gigs wherever he could.

LG: That’s another great story.

BW: I think most of that is in the book.

LG: It is, but it sounds more vivid when you tell it.

BW: I’ve got some other good Big Joe stories. There’s one I really like. I went to see him at another gig at Vulcan. I told him I wanted to send him a copy of the prints. He said he was on the road, and I should send them to his agent in Chicago. After I got a good portfolio, I sent it to the agent. The next time he came, I asked, “How’d you like the pictures?” He said, “Well, I only saw them briefly, because the agent grabbed them and he won’t give them to me.” I told him I could fix that, and I went home and made a copy in my darkroom of this particular print. I took it to him that evening. When I walked in, he was sitting alone in the back room with just a bare bulb over him, playing the guitar; no one there. I handed him the picture; he took it with both hands, put it on the guitar, and looked at it for the longest time. And then he said, “That’s the best picture anyone’s ever done of me.” I think that’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever had.

LG: In the nearly thirty years of shooting the Austin music scene, how would you describe the changes that it has been through?

BW: Well, I think it’s progressed nicely. I don’t go out and don’t photograph anymore. I don’t do nightclubs now. That kind of alters my statement, but I do read who’s playing. It seems to me that it’s progressing the same way it always has. I don’t know . . . I’m not aware that they are inviting old-time blues musicians like Big Joe Williams. Probably do, but I can’t answer that. I think it’s progressed into a very solid scene.

LG: Do you have any words of advice to aspiring photographers?

BW: You just have to believe in what you’re doing and persist at it. And be nice to everyone you meet, because you’re gonna meet them again somewhere down the road. I don’t believe in pushing my weight around because it comes back to you. I believe in getting along with everyone. Most photographers tell people what they want; I don’t pose those I photograph. I prefer to let them—as hippies say—let them do their thing. I let them perform. I was always welcome backstage, but the stage shots—that’s just what they are—they’re staged shots. I like to get the artists off stage as they’re preparing to perform.

LG: Ever found yourself in the perfect moment and you just didn’t have a camera?

BW: I don’t know. I can’t think of one. It would be a good story if I had, though.

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