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Sarah Bird: Flashback

Sarah Bird: Flashback

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Published by Sarah Bird
Sarah Bird reflects on her days as a student photo-journalist at the University of Texas and shares her favorite photographs.
Sarah Bird reflects on her days as a student photo-journalist at the University of Texas and shares her favorite photographs.

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Published by: Sarah Bird on May 24, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/15/2014

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The 
 
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august 2011
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FL A  SHb A ck
Stud yingphoto journalismatUT ledmefrom a degreein anthropolog ytothe lifeoano velist, withstopsatprison rodeos, beaut y salons, and theLBJ Librar yalong thewa y
b y  S A r A H bird
Facing page:
Taken on Congress in 1974 in ronto the old Lerner’s.
This Page:
Learning to use a ashwith my patient roommate as a subject.
 
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It was the summer of 1974. I had a freshly minted B.A. in anthropology from the Univer-sity of New Mexico, a temporary job at the LBJLibrary that was about to end, and a boyfriendwho was leaving me for Scientology.I needed a plan.I took to wandering the campus on my lunchhour, as awed by the power and the might and themarble as a peasant from the provinces come toImperial Rome. The journalism building called tome with its air conditioning and drink machines.I ambled around the cool, empty halls sipping my Diet DP and vaguely fantasizing about being a girlreporter. On the third oor, I stopped to peruse abulletin board. As I was considering whether topluck a phone number off of an ad for “Room-mate Needed” or one from the equally plausible“Passenger to Seattle Wanted,” a thin, cracking voice from an unseen source startled me, “May I help you?”It was summer break. The only open door
He beSt tHing tHAt tHe UniverSity oFtexAS ever did For me wAS to Stick A cAmerA in Front oF my FAce AndoFFiciALLy jUStiFy wHAt i ALreAdy wAS: An obServer, A recorder, A voyeUr, Anintrovert driven by inSAtiAbLe cUrioSity.
on the entire oor led to what I’d taken to be abroom closet.I peeked in. It was a small, windowless ofceupholstered from oor to ceiling with teeteringpiles of paper. At its center was a slight, elderly man, his pronounced buckteeth displayed ina friendly smile. His manner was courtly in anold-fashioned way, more Southern than Texan,more country than city.The old gent seemed to have all the timein the world and an inexplicable eagerness tospend every second of it chatting with a cluelessstranger from New Mexico. I took him to be somesort of emeritus presence, a former professor sobeloved that he was allowed to linger long afterretirement. Though I left feeling as if I’d had anaudience with a skinny Buddha, I didn’t takethe application he’d given me for his “program”seriously. I stuffed it in my backpack and forgotabout it.Until three days later. I was at work on the fth
 Above:
Photo class startedof with all o getting Pola-roid cameras and clickingof shots o each other. HereI am in Pease Park.
Right:
Old-timers rodeo
 
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oor of the LBJ Library, unloading big brownboxes of miscellanea—photos of Lynda Bird’smakeover for her date with George Hamilton;letters from schoolchildren outraged that Presi-dent Johnson had lifted his beagles, Him andHer, up by their ears; recipes for Lady Bird’sBunkhouse Chili—cataloguing the contents andrepacking them into mandarin red buckramboxes for display.I had just nished cataloguing the last of sev-eral red boxes that I’d lled with small, heart-shaped boxes holding pieces of Lynda Bird’swedding cake—long since dried into leathery pucks—when I opened a box packed with photosof the First Lady. And there, right on top, was theskinny Buddha himself receiving an award fromthe First Lady.I quickly dug that application out of my back-pack, applied, and was awarded a fellowship tothe graduate program directed by one of thelegends of Texas journalism, DeWitt C. Reddick.The very rst semester, though, I discoveredmy big problem with journalism: facts. I wouldgo out to “cover” a “story” and return knowingeverything about my subject: why she and herhusband were breaking up, how bad her ragweedallergy was, and how much she hated pimientocheese, but not, necessarily, her last name. Orwhat was in the dreary bill she was sponsoring.Photojournalism, however, was another story altogether. A story where the facts reshuffledthemselves with every click of the shutter, whereno one could ever say they’d been “misquoted,”and you owned whatever corner of the worldyou could put a frame around. I was electriedby a sense of discovery. Of capturing places,people, moments, that no one had ever seenbefore. Certainly not in quite the way that I sawthem. The thought that popped into my headmost frequently was a gleeful, “No one is goingto believe this shit!”Best of all, for a shy person, a camera gaveme permission and a reason to talk to anyone.Delighted with this new superpower, I under-took as one of my rst student projects photo-graphing shoppers at Hancock Center, a nearby mall. I immediately learned that my subjectsstiffened into taxidermy poses when I asked if Icould take their picture. But all I had to do wasinquire if I could photograph their sunglasses,or cool trucker hat, or cute earrings and they instantly relaxed into proud possessors of styl-ish items, attered by every click of my shutter.Back at the University of New Mexico, I’ddreamed of being an anthropologist studyingexotic cultures, and now I was. A camera was my passport to anywhere I wanted to go. And therewere so many places I wanted to go. Wurstfest,a
quinceañera
, the snow monkey ranch in southTexas, shows at the Armadillo World Headquar-ters, the dayroom at the state mental hospital,an old lady beauty salon, and rodeos. Especially rodeos. My rst was the Huntsville Prison Rodeowhere I sat in front of a row of French sailors intheir Donald Duck uniforms muttering, “
Quellebarbare! 
” to each other.It
was
barbaric, and I
was
hooked. Not on theactual sport but on the unique subcultures thatblossomed around what I came to think of as“renegade rodeos:” prison, police, kids, wom-ens, gay, African-American,
charreadas
, and old-timers. I even heard about a nudist rodeo held,naturally, in California, but I never got closeenough to that one to learn the true meaningof bareback riding. To say nothing of rawhide.I found a home in the j-school in the shadow of the big, rusty monolith on Guadalupe and 26th,but I found a clubhouse in the darkroom locatedthen in the basement of the geography building.There is a Christmas-morning moment that digi-tal photographers will never experience of rush-ing your lm to the lab, loading it onto canisters,swishing, swirling, then holding the negativesup to the amber glow of the safe light. Was theexposure right? The shutter speed? Focus? Hadyou captured the magic you’d seen through your view nder? Was it there?The photographers who gathered to developprints—each one its own wonder of chemicalbaths and precise sweeps of light—remindedme of the crews my navigator-father ew withduring the Cold War. Aggressive, funny, glam-orous, filled with bravado. We were shooters. We were badasses. If you needed to be
inside
 the rodeo arena, on the dirt, when they turnedout the bull, then that’s where you were. Ourphotos were the prize catches we brought backto the darkroom, and each one was a challengeto the others to step up their game. My grouphad especially talented members who went onto win Pulitzers, own their own studios, and llthe pages of every important publication in thecountry with their work.But the clock was running out on my fellow-ship and Journalism, unsoftened by Photo-,threatened again: my master’s thesis was due. Itwas made clear to me that my extensive foraysinto the graphic world would not be toleratedfor this nal project. I wasn’t ready, however,to emerge from the amber glow back into theharsh light of facts. Through some marvel of academic double-speak, I managed to get a pro-posal approved that would let me continue pho-tographing at my latest visual paradise, the HydePark Beauty Salon.If I were ever to design a writing program,
The photographers who gathered todevelop prints...reminded me o thecrews my navigator-ather few withduring the Cold War. Aggressive,unny, glamorous, lled with bravado.
 we were SHooterS. we were bAdASSeS.
Left:
**she didn’t have acpation or this image.
 Above:
Girls rodeo. Clearly,I wanted to tell stories...
Top Right:
This photo ispoignant or me, not justbecause the Diamond LArena where I took it is longgone, but because a airlyamous photographer tookthis exact same photo o theriends who were posing orme and went on to exhibit itto some acclaim; At a char-reada in San Antonio

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