The Dallas photographer Laura Wilson is like the visual analogue of the writer Larry McMurtry. They’re arguably Texas’s finest when it comes to telling the story of the West. See three decades’ worth of Wilson’s depictions of the people who inhabit this romantic yet brutal domain through the 71 images and personal diaries in “That Day: Laura Wilson,” the exhibition opening Saturday at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Wilson, who is the mother of the actors Luke, Owen, and Andrew Wilson, got her start when in 1980 Richard Avedon enlisted her as his assistant. The Amon Carter had just commissioned Avedon to take photos for what would ultimately become In the American West, his classic photography book published in 1985. Wilson knew about the project in advance because her husband, TV executive turned ad man Robert A. Wilson, had pitched the idea to the museum. Wilson simply wrote a letter to Avedon, whom she didn’t know, and said she would be willing to do anything to work with him. That’s all it took. She was hired. “It was like being catapulted from the minor leagues to the majors,” Wilson said. “And not the majors but to the Yankees—overnight.”
Wilson had no formal training so the opportunity was like a bootcamp. She was tasked with finding participants for Avedon’s curious cast of subjects and in the process, learned the art of earning their trust. Wilson parlayed that skill into four photojournalism books of her own in which she had to embed herself into a particular subculture. There’s Watt Matthews of Lambshead, about a Princeton-educated rancher, which the New York Times called “a classic of Texas history.” Following that was Hutterites of Montana, focusing on an Old World society where photography wasn’t customarily allowed, about which the historical author David McCullough had this to say: “A book such as this—a book so clearly and genuinely extraordinary comes along rarely and only as a result of exceptional skill and dedication.” Next was Wilson’s book Grit and Glory, about six-man football in Texas, which was inspired by her family’s love for the game. “Each of the boys played high school football,” Wilson said. “And then, just to open the paper on a Saturday morning and you see the scores of all the teams, of every high school in Texas. And the six-man teams were always so terrific. First of all, the names of the towns: Paint Rock, Spur, Panther Creek, Zephyr—all of the names were appealing and so Western. And then the scores were unbelievable. My own boys would be talking about them. They’d say, ‘Look at this score; it was eighty-five to forty-one.’ I thought, ‘Well, let me take a look at that.’ And after the first game I went to, I had to keep returning.”
Wilson’s fourth book was on her experiences working with Avedon, who gave her perspective on the balance between artistry and mechanics. “The most important thing I learned from him was that it isn’t about f-stops and shutter speeds, which is in fact what daunted me as a child when I would read about the great photographers whose pictures were included in U.S. Camera. I thought you had to be a scientist to take pictures. But with Dick it was all about the content of the picture, meaning the subject. I learned that even focus doesn’t really matter. The technical elements are unimportant. What’s important is the graphic impact and emotional power of a photograph.”
Wilson’s show at the Amon Carter is an outgrowth of her new book, That Day: Pictures in the American West. The Clements Center at Southern Methodist University approached her about the project. Instead of a single microcosm of the West, this effort is a take on the West as a whole. Both the book and the exhibition are comprised of photographs—many previously unpublished—spanning Wilson’s career. There are never-used shots from past assignments with the likes of the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post. There are also “spec” shots that Wilson almost forgot she took. Some of them are from her trips to the U.S.-Mexico border. “What I realized is that things I was interested in twenty-five, thirty-five years ago are topical right now, like the border and the number of undocumented workers coming across,” she said. “It hasn’t lessened; it’s gotten more so. Few people in other parts of the country knew much about the border [back then]. Very little was being reported in national magazines. Now it’s a huge subject. It’s part of the presidential discussion. But it wasn’t then. I was seeing it at this transitional time, when the border was just becoming dangerous.”
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, September 5 to February 14, cartermuseum.org
A Haw, Haw, Haw
Firsts are hard to come by in a career already 45 years in the making, but that is exactly what ZZ Top is giving fans this Labor Day, when they headline the Fayette County Fair, a three-day affair in La Grange with a barbecue cook-off, an exotic petting zoo, and, of course, live music. This is the first time the Houston band will have played La Grange, where they will presumably fire off a version to top all other versions of their hit song, “La Grange.” Thankfully, ZZ Top’s set time on Saturday night is at 10 p.m. That means the kiddos likely won’t be awake to ask Mom and Dad about that “Rumor spreadin’ ’round / In that Texas town / About that shack outside La Grange.” It might make for an uncomfortable moment, considering that shack was the Chicken Ranch, a real-life brothel that was shut down in the wake of the song’s popularity but eternally popularized in the Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, based on the play by the Texas writer Larry L. King, which was in turn based on King’s 1974 article in Playboy. In a 1985 interview for Spin magazine, Dusty Hill, the band’s bassist, said this about the Chicken Ranch: “I went there when I was thirteen. A lot of boys in Texas, when it’s time to be a guy, went there and had it done. Fathers took their sons there. You couldn’t cuss in there. You couldn’t drink. It had an air of respectability. Miss Edna wouldn’t stand for no bullshit. That’s the woman that ran the place, and you know she didn’t look like Dolly Parton either.” The song appeared on ZZ Top’s 1973 album Tres Hombres and Rolling Stone called it “a standard for guitarists to show off their chops,” as frontman Billy Gibbons will surely demonstrate this weekend.
Fayette County Fairgrounds, September 5, zztop.com
If You Build It
The construction business in Austin is booming and doesn’t show any signs of letting up. By the time your kid matures into an adult with a job, commercial and residential development is bound to still be lucrative. Instill your progeny early on with a good foundation for this line of work at Lego KidsFest, a three-day Lego free-for-all highlighted by awesome, professionally done sculptural pieces and life-size models. Don’t let the event’s name fool you; there are activities for the whole family, like the Race Ramps, where custom cars are built and raced soap-box-derby style. Legos will turn out to be the literal building blocks of mankind in the Creation Nation activity, in which a giant map of the United States is constructed on the floor with random Lego-made offerings contributed by fest attendees.
Austin Convention Center, September 4–6, legokidsfest.com
All for One, One for All
Interpreting the work of Robert Rauschenberg, the deceased artist born in Port Arthur, requires conducting a thorough investigation. His collage and assemblage can seem totally random, like messages meant for decoding. These two forms of art—in which individual parts are brought together to make one cohesive piece—are the subject of “Recycled, Repurposed, Reborn,” on display through this weekend at the McNay. The museum’s four curators put together the show from the museum’s collection. It includes almost forty pieces, including two by Rauschenberg and one by Picasso, wherein viewers’ eyes are forced to try and discern each of the elements in the piece’s title, “Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass.”
McNay Art Museum, September 4–6, mcnayart.org
Catch His Drift
Austin musician Mike Flanigin learned how to play the Hammond B3 organ from virtuosos of the instrument, including Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton, and he became so good that it seemed he might forever be in the background, pulling out all the stops for a great frontman. But Flanigin recently released his debut solo album, and while the title, The Drifter, would seem to imply that he’s a guy who’s grooving alone, it was actually a team effort, with contributions from, among others, Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, and Jimmie Vaughan, some of who will join Flanigin for his record release show on Sunday.
Paramount Theatre, September 6, 8 p.m., mikeflanigin.com
State of Perfection
Utopia Fest, the three-day music festival, takes its name from its location, Utopia, an actual town situated about an hour and a half west of San Antonio. Mostly, though, Utopia Fest earns its name by creating a fully utopian experience: only around two thousand concertgoers attend each day and they are free to roam at will across a thousand acres. There are also acts that project utopia, like Explosions in the Sky, the Austin band that creates bliss with its epic, guitar-rock instrumentals.
Utopia, September 4–6, utopiafest.com