Marfa and the great beyond.

Mr. Rob Hogan.  Singer and songwriter.  Shot just outside the Marfa Table Restaurant on Marfa's main drag.

After my time in the Davis mountains I stopped back through Ft. Davis. spending just enough time to get stopped by a state trooper for speeding.  For some reason,  probably my honest and like-able face,  he let me off with a warning.  A short while later I passed the world's most productive hydroponic tomato farm and then slid into the sleepy, west Texas town of Marfa.

I had lunch at the Marfa Table, and it was good.  My friend, Bridget, made me a BLT on ciabatta bread with a spicy chipoltle mayo and a great bowl of Porcini mushroom soup.  Wonderful.  Maybe the best reason to head out to Marfa!  Anyway, I struck up a conversation with the table next to me and it was delightful.  One of the pleasures of being out on the road.  Two men and a women were nursing coffee and chatting away.  One was a doctor who also keeps the NPR station  on the air for the entire area.  He'd just interviewed the other two people at the table, Marie and Rob, who are traveling musicians.  They'd done a performance the night before in Terlingua, would be performing in the evening at the Gage Hotel in Marathon and Sunday would bring them back to Marfa to play on the patio at the El Paisano Hotel.

I shot Hogan as he was talking to the good doctor.  For the technically inclined, this was an available light shot using the afternoon sun from the subject's back, right side.  The glorious fill light was provided by the bounce off the wall just behind the photographer (that's me).  I was delighted with the dynamic range of the EP2 sensor which did a good job including the direct sunlight on the right of his face while providing good exposure on his face overall.  Not to mention nice detail in the dark tones of his jacket.

As usual  on this trip, the camera was used with its humble kit lens.

I spent a while talking to these guys and getting a dose of what it's like to spend weeks and weeks on the road.  Little things become big questions.  Like,  "Do you think the hotel will have a laundry service?   If not, do you think there's a laundromat close by?

"If there's no vacancy when we get to the Gage do we sleep in our cars......again?"

I thought photography was a dicey way to earn a living until I hung out for a while with musicians.  Yikes.

Bridget and I made plans to meet up around five and share a bottle of wine at the big hotel and then head out for a nice dinner at a place called, "The Blue Javalina".  I did what I love most and spent time wandering around Marfa looking for buried treasure.  The kind that's right in front of you.  You just have to be in the right mindset to get it.  What started to appeal to me are what I call the Marfa Ruins.  For some reason these rail side pillars from a structure long ago rendered unnecessary seemed to evoke visual memories of the columns at the Forum in Rome.

Once I got the vibe with these I spent some time looking for images that incorporated that feeling of disuse and decay into some sort of feeling of the desolate southwest. I had fun photographing this old stock pen that sits beside the railroad.  The historical marker indicates that in prime days 70,000 head of cattle a year were processed through the pens and onto railcars here.

I love the look of the sky with the thin, diaphanous clouds high over head.  This is near the edge of town but still in town.  I spent and hour nosing around here without seeing a single person.  Without answering the old, "Can I help you?" from a law enforcement officer.  That may be because Marfa doesn't have its own police force.  They call a county sheriff if there's a problem.

Here's what I see when I drive through places like Marfa: There's a continual process of discovery and abandonment.  People come to Marfa on the way to somewhere else and they stop for gas and a sandwich.  While there the quiet and solitude work on them.  Maybe they're running from a big city and a crappy, stressful career.  As a counterpoint the west seems tranquil and manageable.

After they've been here for a while, fixed up a business or renovated a house the sameness starts to get to them.  Once bitten by the convenience of getting good phone service and coffee, good coffee, within five minutes of wherever you are, you get spoiled.

You go to one of the two tiny markets and look for fresh fruits and vegetables and you get misty eyed for the giant Whole Foods with its almost infinite choice of stuff.  And you might miss your doctor and you dentist because there are no full time ones in the area, etc. etc.  But the heck with all that.  I'm not a socialogist, I'm just a photographer.

For some reason, and it may be because I'm so resolutely anchored in a frenetic urban space,  I really love all these old farm and ranch supply buildings.  I love the corrugated siding and the tanks and pipes against a pure blue sky.  When I walk around small, Texas towns I spend a lot of time trying to make this stuff into some kind of art.  Might be nice as a contrasty monochrome image.

My friend's house is right across the street from an obvious artist's house.  I say obvious because everything in the yards, front and back, have an artful look to them.  This is a detail shot of the side fence which is made up of layers of rock and huge nuggets of colored glass.  It lives better than it photographs.
Marfa sneaks up on you.  At first you think, "desolate desert town, move on."  But given time the quality of the light and the obvious depth of the people give you pause.  They you get stuck and think, more.  Give me more.  Somewhere there's a balance.

So, what have a I learned so far?  I've learned that I adore shooting in the square.  Seems so natural and easy.  I've learned that there are very few things that in body image stabilization can't handle.  I've learned that the EP2, either by processing or by the nature of its sensor chips, nails exposure 95% of the time and greats images with great details in the shadows and the highlights.

While I'm pretty certain that I'm instantly pegged as a tourist with my jeans, black Target ($7) tennis shoes and my black t-shirt, I'm equally sure that my photographic profile is as slim as I can make it with my little black camera kept tucked in one hand with no strap intersecting my haberdashery or waving like a flash.  I watched people from the "big city" who'd come to do photo tourism (like me) but they wore their big cameras like badges, challenging people.  One fella I saw had on his photo vest and wide brimmed safari hat.  On one shoulder was the latest fat Canon with a 70-200. Around his neck, promotional strap wide and flaglike, was a second fat body with a plump wide angle zoom.  The exotically scalloped lens hood looking vaguely evil in a "Star Wars Storm Troopers Darth Vadar" way.  He marched through the street daring images to show themselves......

I learned on the trip to come first as an interested person and secondly as a photographer. Rather than barging in blazing, shutter clacking like an automatic weapon, perhaps it's more effective to smile, talk, share coffee and then lift the camera almost as an afterthought.  An easy and extemporaneous afterthought.  For years this was the province of Leica M cameras. Small and unobtrusive.  Now it's the province of a new generation of small and capable cameras.  If only we can get the shutter noise down a bit.............

I packed extra camera gear, but not much.  I hedged my EP2 and kit lens with an e30, a 14-35mm and a couple of Canon G cameras (the 10 and the 10) .  Pretty much everything but the EP2 stayed in the bag.

Wish list:  A direct, inexpensive flight from Austin to Marfa with a good car or motorcycle rental shop close by.  A noiseless Olympus EP2.  An Olympus 25mm f2 lens.  Not a 20!  (Too short.)  A nice public swimming pool in Marfa for lap swimming.  Time to enjoy it all.  Next up.  Adventures in Marathon.


Martin said...

Kirk I love the post and would certainly echo your comments regarding the over burdened photographers with all their kit, I actually posted something similar although not as well written on my post yesterday..http://martinyeates.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/

Your recollections and style really do have a wonderful flow and the narrative is always engaging, I envy you the locations you are dipping into. They have such magical names all of which are completely alien to me, I know very little of the area you are passing through and the one you are resident in..

The images really do tick the box marked wanderlust in my psyche, I look forward to your next installment..

Anonymous said...

You should write a book about traveling. It would be a hell of a lot of fun to read.

kirk tuck said...

I had a funny thought today while I was looking through the posts from my trip: It really doesn't take a very expensive camera anymore to take really great photographs, technically speaking. The really hard part is to have a point of view. And to be able to incorporate the technical skills into the imagery. But even more important is to have the judgement to be able, from time to time, to ignore the "correct" technical decision in order to have the right amount of "art" in the image.

I'm guilty of leaning on my technical skills and going for the image that I know will be appealing to other tech guys. I wish I could ignore the "math and science" part of the photo process and pay more attention to the mysterious "there is no right answer" side of the art.

I think I'll work on that this year. A bit late for New Year's resolutions but what the hell. I may even sign up for Andrew Long's two day course on creativity......I've spent money on crazier stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Kirk,

I stumbled onto your blog a few days ago after reading a review of cameras on Amazon. Someone had suggested you, plus dpreview.com and some other sites as good sources for information on various cameras and their characteristics, plus some examples of great photos.

I'm a neophyte - more of a "snapshot" photographer who is interested in moving to a good, but small format camera from a Canon S50 than anyone who will ever become an expert. Oddly enough, though, I was "Photo Officer" on a diesel submarine back in the mid-70s, but (at least in my case) expertise and experience were not required for that assignment, just a warm body.

I'm very impressed by the beautiful, vibrant color you get from your Olympus EP2. Unfortunately, the EP2 is a little on the high side for my wallet, and may be too complex for my skills, but I'm wondering if you think the Olympus E-PL1 might be a good fit for someone who wants to upgrade from a decent point and shoot. My interests tend to center around gardens and travel, and the ability to shoot in low light seems it would be important. We'll be traveling in Spain this fall and it would be nice to have a camera with image stabilization to record some of the many things we'll see during our travels, preferably without the out-of-focus blurring. But the camera needs to be reasonably small for all the reasons you've mentioned on your blog, in your visit to Marfa.

Any suggestions for camera and lenses to consider?

Thanks, Bill

Neil Gaudet said...

Just wanted to say I'm enjoying your trip so far Kirk. I feel like I'm on holiday too!

Raianerastha said...

I tend to consider myself a "visual storyteller" more than a "photographer". After 30+ years in photography I believe I have the technical chops to produce tech-impressive images. But inevitably the ones I prefer are those which eschew the tech side in favor of being "organic" in presentation of the narrative. I will admit part of this is because my technical expertise isn't on the par of those brilliant folks who can make a photo of a bottle of ketchup into a gallery worthy masterpiece.

Kirk, it sounds like that is what the E-P2 does for you...removes technical concerns in favor of the story behind the photos. I for one greatly appreciate blog entries like this where the essence of the photography-expressing your view and opinion of a part of the world you enjoy-is more important than technical considerations.


roteague said...


I really appreciate the photos of your trip, it brings back lots of memories. I haven't travelled through our around Texas in more than 20 years. Perhaps, when I get tired of exploring Australia, I'll come back to the land of my birth.

Alan said...

The hard part for me is letting my "point of view" go and finding that point between finding an image and having the image find me. After 20+ years of struggling as an editorial / photojournalist shooter with only minor victories, it's easy to give up.
For the last two months I've been on my own road trip but in the city where I live. Gearwise, I'm similar to you, the heavy duty kit stays at home and I have an EP-1 w/20mm in my jacket pocket. It's getting better, I'm starting to meet new photographs in the same streets where I've been for years.
Thanks Kirk for sharing your inspiration!

Anonymous said...

The hardest thing for most of us is to dig out the time and energy to get out and go. That, coupled with having to convince spouses that the trip (along) is worthwhile is an incredible task. Kudos to you for making it happen.

Robert said...

Not a gear head so I could care less about the r2d2 or the ep2 but I love the square format, and am planing to crop other than the boring 2:3 so that I can let my creativity fly. I think that I am lucky enough to know the basic theory behind technically good images but I don't eat sleep and breath it so it is easier to shoot more creatively.