If you ask an editor or art director, “What’s the key to a successful photo shoot?,” they’ll likely tell you it’s hiring the right photographer for the right story. LeAnn Mueller was almost always the right photographer. Barbecue royalty, LeAnn was also an accomplished visual artist and a beloved contributor to Texas Monthly for almost two decades. Her natural ability to disarm her subjects made for striking portraits, but she also had a gift for art in a broader sense, creating beauty in landscapes, reportage, and even the occasional photo illustration, which often involved more time in front of the computer than behind the camera.
LeAnn traveled to all corners of Texas on assignment (often with her wife and photo assistant, Ali Clem): to Sutherland Springs to document the grief of a small town after a mass shooting; to Crockett to tell the story of legendary bull rider Myrtis Dightman; to Archer to capture the gravitas of Larry McMurtry; and back to her home city of Austin to make portraits of Lyle Lovett and Richard Linklater. And every time, she came back with a collection of iconic photos—and a wild story or two as well.
Here, her colleagues and subjects share their memories of working with her over the years.
Emily Kimbro, Texas Monthly creative director:
I first met LeAnn (who by then was already on speed dial in the art department) and Ali in 2015 at a photo shoot of a musician here in Austin. LeAnn spent exactly five minutes scouting and ten minutes shooting (she’d of course nailed the perfect shot within the first few seconds), before we spent the rest of the evening enjoying beers. In the years that followed, I was lucky enough to work with her on shoots for more stories. Her subjects ranged from artists, politicians, and other big Texas personalities to barbecue joints, rodeos, and honky tonks (and sometimes even politicians at honky tonks). LeAnn was up for anything, and she could make any moment feel iconic.
Christian Wallace, Texas Monthly staff writer:
One truth about working at a magazine: it’s a team sport. The best work happens when everyone who touches the story—the writer, the editors, fact-checkers, and the art department—are firing on all cylinders. As a young writer mostly concerned about words, I didn’t really understand just how vital this team dynamic was until I saw the photographs accompanying my first cover story.
I had written a profile of Myrtis Dightman, a legendary bull rider from East Texas, and my editor and I had done all we could to harness his incredible life story on the page. But then we got back the portraits of Dightman, and those photos elevated the entire piece. They went beyond simple portraiture— they captured his essence. That cover is one of the most iconic images this magazine has produced in its fifty-year history. And the genius behind the camera was LeAnn Mueller.
I was lucky enough to work with LeAnn on two more covers, though her subject for these was far less compelling than Dightman: me. For the first, a story about honky-tonks, we traveled to Bandera to shoot in Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, one of the state’s great watering holes. The art department wanted to shoot folks dancing on the sawdust floor, and I brought my two-stepping parents to act as models. LeAnn, accompanied by Ali, started shooting as the couples started twirling around the dance floor, but it was awkward without music. I was asked to drop a few quarters in the jukebox. While I was flipping through records, Lone Star beer in hand, I heard the camera start clicking behind me. One of those impromptu pictures ended up as the cover. Seeing and capturing those natural, unstaged moments was part of LeAnn’s brilliance.
I didn’t know LeAnn well. We didn’t spend much time together outside of these photo shoots. Still, it was clear that she was a rarity—an artist living deeply, close to the marrow of life. She worked hard and played even harder. While her talents were undeniable, she seemed to approach everything in her life with a fierce determination to wring the joy and beauty out of every moment.
The last time I saw her was at her Austin restaurant, la Barbecue. I had come by to drop off copies of our final collaboration, a cover she shot of me and my dog sitting on the tailgate of my pickup. It was the most personal story I had written for the magazine, but I was comforted knowing I’d be working with LeAnn. At least the pictures would be good. And they were. When I stopped by la Barbecue that day, LeAnn and Ali were having a party on the patio with a wild group of friends. They welcomed me and stuffed me with brisket and champagne. It was a damn good party. At one point that evening, I was talking with one of their friends. Nodding at Ali and LeAnn, he said being in their presence was something to not take for granted. I had to agree.
Victoria Millner, Texas Monthly design director:
When I arrived to my first photoshoot on location with LeAnn in 2015, I think we’d budgeted about three hours of time with Shakey Graves. Little did I know, she was a wizard that could do multiple setups faster than anyone I’d ever worked with. And, of course, they were all winning shots, which made selecting photos a Herculean task. I think you could put together an iconic photo book just from the leftover photos we didn’t have room to publish. So the three hours of shoot time worked out to about fifteen minutes of photographing Shakey and about five hours of us all playing darts and shooting the breeze at Casino Southside. She had really figured out the whole work-hard, play-hard formula, and will be deeply missed for both.
Claire Hogan, Texas Monthly photo editor, 2017–2023:
I don’t remember when I first met LeAnn, only that I was an intern at Austin Monthly at the time and was probably intimidated. It may have had to do with the fact she had photographed and spent time with people I had only ever seen on screens. But more than likely, it was because she moved through the world speaking her mind—unafraid to ruffle feathers—and I’d never encountered anyone quite like her. But in the past nine years, intimidation was replaced by camaraderie.
When I think about my career thus far, she’s been one of the most consistent presences in it, along with Ali. I’ll miss witnessing LeAnn patiently coax some of the most stone-faced subjects into big toothy smiles on set. I’ll miss spotting her as she balances on a wobbly chair, hangs over the edge of a staircase, or pops up out of a sunroof to get “the shot.” I’ll miss her emails peppered with smiley faces with multiple chins. I’ll miss her.
And as a byproduct of missing LeAnn, I will also miss her photographs. LeAnn was truly a one-of-a-kind photographer, and she loved challenges so much she often created them for herself. She’d see something too beautiful and find ways to make it gritty and dynamic. She’d nail a traditionally well-composed shot, and then she’d be on the ground, shooting dramatically upward, usually directly into a light source, in a manner that’d make you think, “There’s no way these are turning out better than the first shots we got.” But those were the shots that always won out. She also rarely walked into a location having scouted it beforehand, but she’d almost always walk out with twice as many shots as we’d planned, the surplus being a result of ideas she’d had on the fly. I ended up huddled around a computer screen with our designers more times than I can count, trying to figure out how we could use more of her images in the magazine. And because LeAnn was also a master retoucher, her final images always offered a second chance to be blown away by her talent.
One of my favorite memories on set with LeAnn was a time I saw her a little out of character. For the December 2019 issue, we hired LeAnn to photograph Lyle Lovett. The two of them had never met before and yet when LeAnn walked through the door of Texas Traditions boot shop, Lyle recognized her immediately. “You’re LeAnn Mueller,” he said. This caught her momentarily off guard, but LeAnn responded after only a beat with, “And you’re Lyle Lovett. How do you know who I am?” The next words out of Lyle’s mouth made her grin because, a photographer in his own right, he was being sincere. “You’re famous,” he stated. Her grin broke into a laugh, and I think that’s one of the only times I ever saw a subject put the charm on LeAnn for a change.
John Spong, Texas Monthly staff writer:
The first time I met LeAnn was when she shot a portrait of Phil Collins for a 2011 feature I wrote on his love of the Alamo. I don’t think she realized it going in, but the deck was stacked against her. Phil, it turns out, is a shockingly nice and normal person. But his nearly lifelong fascination with Davy Crockett, and the ever-growing collection of artifacts from the Texas Revolution it inspired, had become international news.
While his dedication may have made perfect sense to Texans, the wider world thought it was weird. So “press shy” doesn’t begin to describe how he was feeling when he ushered LeAnn and me into his room at the Hyatt Riverwalk in San Antonio, his favorite suite overlooking the Alamo, on a Saturday morning that April. When he noticed LeAnn’s preparation for the shoot—a coonskin cap fell from her bag when she pulled out her tripod—he coldly noted, “Well, I’ll not be putting that on,” and turned to look out the window.
That’s when LeAnn went to work. She had a quick, cut-to-the-chase charm. “Well, s—, I had to try,” she said, unloading the other props she’d brought onto his unmade bed. Somehow, this tickled Phil. They started to talk, trading stories about old trips to the Alamo, then moving on to other corners of Texas history and eventually, of course, barbecue. Maybe Phil realized he was encountering, if not Texas royalty, then certainly our peerage. Or more likely, he was just taken in by LeAnn being LeAnn. They connected. And he trusted her.
LeAnn’s portrait that ran with the piece is perfect. Phil’s gaze is formal, intense, and almost defiant. The collar of his shirt is popped, as is his wont. And on the shirt’s left breast is an embroidered patch depicting the famous façade of the old mission. LeAnn had picked up the shirt that morning at the Alamo gift shop, and Phil had been happy to put it on.
Andy Langer, Texas Monthly writer-at-large:
I consider myself lucky to have had LeAnn shoot the photos for multiple music profiles I’ve written for this magazine. I worked with her two or three times before I realized her role in maintaining and expanding her family’s barbecue legacy. Perhaps it didn’t occur to me because she was so confident, comfortable, and talented as a photographer, I just assumed this was her full-time livelihood.
In 2015, we met in Fort Worth for a piece on Leon Bridges a few months before he exploded onto the national scene. It was Leon’s first big photo shoot, and he told me he was anxious about it for days. LeAnn made those nerves disappear almost immediately by simply asking him to do the thing he was comfortable doing: playing guitar and singing. Truly great music photos are the images that pop into your head when you hear certain names mentioned, and for me, that series of photos of Leon, relaxed and smiling ear to ear, is still exactly how I picture him.
Two years later, for my cover story on the new state of Texas music, LeAnn shot Leon and Gary Clark Jr. together in Houston. We’d planned to shoot at the Heights Theater, but the lighting didn’t work. She quickly switched gears and fashioned a backdrop at Heights Mercantile, a funky clothing shop down the street from the theater. It made for one of the magazine’s most memorable covers in years.
We were almost always working when we saw each other, but I remain grateful for the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and watch her make my stories infinitely better. Like many great portrait photographers, she fully understood the nuanced (and often silent) conversation that has to take place between photographers and subjects. It’s rare to find someone who equally understood people, the mechanics of photography, and the demands of magazine journalism. Lots of people do one of those things well—very few can do all three. And I know no one else who could do all three while also changing the landscape of barbecue. She was truly singular. May her memory be a blessing.
Barry Corbin, actor known for roles in Northern Exposure, No Country for Old Men, and Urban Cowboy, as told to Texas Monthly staff writer Mike Hall:
LeAnn shot photos of character actor Barry Corbin at his Fort Worth home on November 23, 2020 (see gallery above).
LeAnn was so full of life, I figured she’d be going forever. I liked her a lot. She talked like a barbecue chef. We sat and talked for a while before we even started, just getting to know each other. We took some photos with me on horseback. I got on an old paint horse here and prodded it around a little bit in the backyard. That’s the first time I’d been on a horse in about a year. Then, we went in my office and she was just taking some portraits. And she said, “Have you got anything else you’d like to do?” And I started making faces and goofing around. She had that ability to put you at ease, you know? I’m used to photographers and I’m used to having my picture taken, but it’s always good to have somebody that you can, you know, relax with.
Brian Johnson, Texas Monthly art director, 2009–2014:
Such a loss in energy and talent. LeAnn’s process was definitely organic, but the final result was always beyond. The level of style and depth she could capture made working with her images both incredibly exciting and fairly intimidating. [Pitmaster] Roy Perez, cowgirls, the Playboy sign in Marfa: I can remember the feeling of seeing all of these shoots for the first time. So much joy.
Nicki Longoria, Texas Monthly art producer, 2008–2016
We first met on assignment for Texas Monthly, back in 2011. I was a newly minted member of the art department, and I was to ride along with her to shoot another real live wire, Billy Joe Shaver. I was nervous to go on the shoot because it was my first one for the magazine and I had heard LeAnn was a wild card. After a near-miss car accident mere blocks from the office, we both looked at each other, laughed, and instantly knew we would be friends.
We drove to Shaver’s house in Waco, listened to the clicks and clacks of him undoing the tower of locks lining his front door with raised eyebrows, and stepped into the dark, wood-paneled house filled with taxidermy. None of this remotely fazed her. She walked in there like she was walking into her own house. I watched her introduce herself, start setting up her gear, and make small talk. Little by little, I could see Shaver loosen up. She got him in place and went to work, keeping the chatter going and getting some laughs out of Shaver. He was so comfortable, he offered to show off a small pistol he had tucked away in his pocket. A pistol in the pocket of a Texan is not a rarity by any means, but at the time Shaver was in the midst of dealing with some legal issues involving a firearm—an outlaw is as an outlaw does.
Shortly after the story ran, LeAnn gave me two signed prints from that shoot, and ever since, the watchful eye of Shaver has been over my shoulder. For her to love you was to feel like the luckiest person on the planet. My luck started on that day and will be with me forever.