Shell Sign – Sealy, Texas 2012

For my first post of the new year I wanted to put up something special. I started looking through my old scans, but I didn’t come up with anything representative of the New Year. And then I realized that what was most indicative of the fresh start we associate with the New Year would be a new photo. Whoa, there pardner you say – if you’re from Texas and a cartoon character you say that – I thought this blog was all about posting old images from “the archive.” Ok fair enough – that remains my intention with this blog, but I say relax. Be flexible. There are no rules here, just strong suggestions. Bear with me, and I’ll explain why I think this particular photo merits an exception.

If you know me, then you know that I have cancer. If you don’t know me then take my word for it. You can go to my other blog if you don’t believe me or just want to learn more about my illness. It’s hard to keep cancer separate from anything in my life, but in general I plan to keep my illness and photo blogging as separate as church and state. Which is to say that I plan to ignore my illness’s existence here until it suits my purposes to acknowledge it.

So what’s the connection with this new photo, the new year and my cancer? Well, I’ve spent almost a year and half driving (or being driven by my wife) back and forth from our home in Austin to Houston’s MD Anderson Hospital for doctors’s appointments and treatments. The trip takes about three hours, and from my perspective in the navigator’s chair I saw many things that begged to be photographed, but nothing caught my attention more than this old shell sign just outside of Sealy, TX. The sign became one of our landmarks, and I looked forward to seeing it every trip. I also held my breath every time we got close to mile marker 712 because I was afraid the sign might be gone, torn down, blown down, or just finally rotted down. But every time I got to the little spot on the road, the sign was still there, and every time we passed by I promised myself that when I got better I would come back and finally take a photo. Unfortunately, I’ve never really gotten better, and frankly I began to feel like I was in a race with sign to see which one of us was going to last the longest.

On a recent trip to Houston to get treatment I decided that I couldn’t wait any longer to get my photo. When we arrived at the sign, the sun was setting, and I only had a few minutes of light left to take photos. I jumped out on the side of the road and began tramping through the high grass until I got as close as I could – a barbed wire fence kept me about 20 meters away. I tried a few different angles and decided I had the shot I wanted – besides I had to get to Houston and I had lost the light anyways. After I got back in the car, I reminisced about one of my favorite photographic projects.

About ten years ago – a year or two after I moved to Austin – I started a project about the Texas Hill Country. I drove around for months photographing anything remotely rustic or pastoral looking. Part of the reason I  enjoyed doing this project so much is that I had no rules, deadlines, or agendas other than to go out and make good images.

It’s been a long time since I photographed with that kind of freedom. I’ve done very few personal projects since I started working as a full-time photographer. Most of my creative energy goes into my job. That job has a specific audience we’re trying to reach and consequently it has restrictions on what I should photograph and requirements I need to fulfill for each assignment. However, it’s not just the demands of my work that has interfered with my personal photography.

Before I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism my photography was free from almost any kind of rules. I did most of my work from the perspective of an artist. There was no predetermined end use for my work and no expectations. Photojournalism gave my work structure. It gave me the skills to put together stories and craft strong images that convey information and meaning at a glance, but these new abilities came with a price. The requirements of journalism stifled my intuitive ability as a photographer. It wakened my inner critic and intensified it’s voice. I almost completely lost the ability to photograph something just because it was interesting. The subject had to be meaningful. If a composition didn’t fulfill certain criteria then it often didn’t get photographed.

I missed a lot of great photographs and neglected to document many great moments because they didn’t live up to a checklist in my brain. Just like athletes, photographers work best when they’ve practiced enough to master the physical aspects of their work and studied enough that their thoughts and intuition are virtually one and the same. If you’re a wide receiver and you hesitate you’ll miss making the catch – if you’re a photographer and you hesitate you’ll miss taking the picture of the catch. The mind and the body have to work simultaneously as one.

There was a time that I shot that way – no hesitation. If it looked cool, or I had some visceral reaction to a scene I shot it without wondering about whether it could run in a newspaper. I think I did my best work then, and I think I’m almost back to being able to “see” a photograph without having to conceive of it first. It’s taken me six years, but I believe I’m finally at the point where I’m able to ignore all of the rules about photography that I’ve learned over the years.

This photograph of the Shell sign represents a turning point in my personal work. It prompted  me revisit my Hill Country project to see why I enjoyed it so much. It has inspired me to start a new project photographing on the highways and backroads from Austin to Houston, and it’s the first image in that series. It’s a bridge between my past, present, and future work. More importantly it’s a return to photographing from the heart and not the brain.


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2 Responses to Shell Sign – Sealy, Texas 2012

  1. janis cowell says:

    You write so beautifully. I have enjoyed looking at your photographs, both old and new. For Christmas, Mike gave me a gizmo that allows me to scan my (very) old B&W negatives from college days. It has helped me realize how strongly attracted I have always been to certain types of images. I hope you have the opportunity to look back on your body of work when you are my age. You are always in our prayers.

  2. Casey says:

    Loved reading about you enjoying taking photos again the way you used to before “the rules”. Keep doing this! Lookong forward to seeing more.

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