Art-tropology. Documenting public art as a personal project.

I see more and more of what I call "public art." It's mostly in the form of murals and "invited" graffiti. 
There is some really good stuff being done in the oddest places. The building on which this mural is painted is an older property near the central campus of Austin's community college. The front of the building is on 12th street and this artwork is on the side of the building, facing into their parking lot.

When I document public art I try to find a way to record the entire piece as well as the signature of the artist, then I go tighter and try to create a photographic composition that makes sense to me as a photograph instead of stopping at making a literal documentation. 

I started doing this many years ago, both in Austin and San Antonio, and recently I've found mural treasures in Denver, CO. as well. One of the reasons I walk around the downtown space here so often is that even commissioned public art tends to have a short half life. People "tag" over the original art or general wear and tear eventually degrades the work. If I walk through the areas where I know there is good art on a frequent basis I have a better chance of photographing it while it's fresh. 

Sometimes going to a place on a Sunday, or earlier in the morning yields the advantage of not having to compete with cars and trucks for a good view. For example, this morning I was able to shoot a giant mural of "jeweled" frogs on the side of a downtown building at a time when there were no cars at the parking meters in front of the mural. It was the same with the mural above. Before 8 a.m. you have a fighting chance of getting a clean area in front of the art that allows you to photograph straight in, without having to wiggle your camera to one side or the other in a frustrating attempt to dodge parked cars. 

The commissioned work I see is usually very well produced. It shows the hands and minds of true craftspeople. I love the "circus" images on the back of the building that houses Esther's Follies comedy club. The "Op Art" on plywood fronting a property on Congress Ave., just a couple of blocks from the Capitol is also very nice. It's all worth documenting because, inevitably, it will go away. 

One of the earliest pieces was an ad on the side of an old building in downtown. A building got torn down in order to make way for a newer, plainer building and the demolition revealed a chewing gum ad on the building next door. 

Now, of course, if you are doing this professionally you really will need the absolute latest camera. It must have two card slots because one never knows when the wrecking ball will beat you to the re-shoot should your single card slot fail. You'll probably need a Sony a9 (I'm sure redacted website would consider it mandatory) so you can capture the work at high rates of speed. Buildings move fast. And no building will stand still if you aren't using one of those white lenses (or at least light grey...). As you might imagine, a fast, professional optic is required. In bright sunlight f2.0 might be dicey; better make it an f1.2 instead. This presumes, of course, that you'll have a raw converter built into your professional camera so you can get your "work" up on Instagram while you are still facing the subject of your study. Anything less would be temporally unprofessional. I can only use Canon and Nikon for this sort of work since they now have service trucks (like our food trucks) parked close to the art just in case one of the cameras, operating at speed, drops a cog or runs out of sensor oil. Occasionally I find that I need to borrow a 1200mm f2.8 from one of the "big boys" so I can shoot a mural from across the street. Good to know they are there. 

In all seriousness, this kind of work can be done with just about anything that has a battery that will still hold a charge. My first documentations were done with film cameras but I started photographing Austin murals in earnest with my original Olympus E-1 camera. It worked well. 

It's fun to have a mission in mind when you head outside with your camera. An ongoing mission like the documentation of public art gives me a reason to walk and a reason to bring along a camera. Over time you develop a deeper and deeper inventory of images and, in some ways, you create an archive of the change in your city.

Today I was using the Panasonic G85. That's just because it's my newest toy. My all time favorite camera for this kind of "work" has been the Sony RX10iii. Being able to use so many vastly different focal lengths gives me ultimate flexibility and the really good stabilization never hurts. 


  1. Kt,
    Love this work. Color, texture, composition, subjects just find them interesting and stimulating. Gotta get out and take some time to shoot around town. Alas, the small town I live in is not so colorful. Of course there is always B&W. Perhaps I should look at my small town closer.

  2. I love documenting public art and I'm lucky to live in a city that has encouraged it see https://plus.google.com/collection/YdUXW for a sample. I love how it is ephemeral, topical an range in size from a few inches to many yards/metres in size

  3. I used to work for 2 different companies (AMD and Metrowerks) that had me fly into Austin for business on a regular basis. I enjoyed visiting your city.

    I've loved seeing the various murals and all you've photographed over the years, and it is nice to have a collection of them in one post. I wonder if there is a market for a book of such photos.

    The plastic cows reminded me of a phase several cities seemed to go through a few years ago of having various decorated cows done by artists.

    I also liked your comment about what camera to use. A lot of these types of pictures can be taken with anything (cellphone, 15 year 2 megapixel camera, etc.). What matters is the image. Sure, there are times when you need the big gear to be able to capture the image. But not always.

  4. I think that this is an important thing to do. Photos like yours may likely be the most-permanent record of these works of art. So much art and architecture has been destroyed over the years in the name of "progress". Keep it up.

  5. Nice gallery Kirk. I like photographing street art myself and it's always nice when you can catch the artist(s) as they work. Like in a couple of your images.

    As for equipment, forget about speed. What of course one MUST always use for this kind of project is an $8000 Leica with a couple of $5000 lenses. You know, for the colours to pop in that true 3D fashion that walls have. Besides it's obvious that street photography demands Leicas and that is especially true in safe cities like here in Rio de Janeiro.

    Keep up the great blog. I especially like to follow your professional assignments and projects. And the occasional lighting tips. :-)

  6. Excellent work! I also enjoyed your novel.

  7. Hey Kirk - I really enjoy your street photos. Well done. Ron


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