Flash Back

Studying photojournalism at UT led me from a degree in anthropology to the life of a novelist, with stops at prison rodeos, beauty salons, and the LBJ Library along the way.

The best thing that The University of Texas ever did for me was to stick a camera in front of my face and officially justify what I already was: an observer, a recorder, a voyeur, an introvert driven by insatiable curiosity.

It was the summer of 1974. I had a freshly minted B.A. in anthropology from the University of New Mexico, a temporary job at the LBJ Library that was about to end, and a boyfriend who was leaving me for Scientology. I needed a plan.

I took to wandering the campus on my lunch hour, as awed by the power and the might and the marble as a peasant from the provinces come to Imperial Rome. The journalism building called to me with its air conditioning and drink machines. I ambled around the cool, empty halls sipping my Diet DP and vaguely fantasizing about being a girl reporter.

On the third floor, I stopped to peruse a bulletin board. As I was considering whether to pluck a phone number off of an ad for “Roommate 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 on the entire floor led to what I’d taken to be a broom closet. I peeked in.

It was a small, windowless office upholstered from floor to ceiling with teetering piles of paper. At its center was a slight, elderly man, his pronounced buckteeth displayed in a friendly smile. His manner was courtly in an old-fashioned way, more Southern than Texan, more country than city. The old gent seemed to have all the time in the world and an inexplicable eagerness to spend every second of it chatting with a clueless stranger from New Mexico. I took him to be some sort of emeritus presence, a former professor so beloved that he was allowed to linger long after retirement.

Though I left feeling as if I’d had an audience with a skinny Buddha, I didn’t take the application he’d given me for his “program” seriously. I stuffed it in my backpack and forgot about it. Until three days later. I was at work on the fifth floor of the LBJ Library, unloading big brown boxes of miscellanea—photos of Lynda Bird’s makeover for her date with George Hamilton; letters from schoolchildren outraged that President Johnson had lifted his beagles, Him and Her, up by their ears; recipes for Lady Bird’s Bunkhouse Chili—cataloguing the contents and repacking them into mandarin red buckram boxes for display.

I had just finished cataloguing the last of several red boxes that I’d filled with small, heart-shaped boxes holding pieces of Lynda Bird’s wedding cake—long since dried into leathery pucks—when I opened a box packed with photos of the First Lady. And there, right on top, was the skinny Buddha himself receiving an award from the First Lady. I quickly dug that application out of my backpack, applied, and was awarded a fellowship to the graduate program directed by one of the legends of Texas journalism, DeWitt C. Reddick.

Photo by Sarah Bird

The very first semester, though, I discovered my big problem with journalism: facts. I would go out to “cover” a “story” and return knowing everything about my subject: why she and her husband were breaking up, how bad her ragweed allergy was, and how much she hated pimiento cheese, but not, necessarily, her last name. Or what was in the dreary bill she was sponsoring.

Photojournalism, however, was another story altogether. A story where the facts reshuffled themselves with every click of the shutter, where no one could ever say they’d been “misquoted,” and you owned whatever corner of the world you could put a frame around. I was electrified by a sense of discovery. Of capturing places, people, moments, that no one had ever seen before. Certainly not in quite the way that I saw them. The thought that popped into my head most frequently was a gleeful, “No one is going to believe this shit!”

Best of all, for a shy person, a camera gave me permission and a reason to talk to anyone. Delighted with this new superpower, I undertook as one of my first student projects photographing shoppers at Hancock Center, a nearby mall. I immediately learned that my subjects stiffened into taxidermy poses when I asked if I could take their picture. But all I had to do was inquire if I could photograph their sunglasses, or cool trucker hat, or cute earrings and they instantly relaxed into proud possessors of stylish items, flattered by every click of my shutter.

Back at the University of New Mexico, I’d dreamed of being an anthropologist studying exotic cultures, and now I was. A camera was my passport to anywhere I wanted to go. And there were so many places I wanted to go. Wurstfest, a quinceañera, the snow monkey ranch in south Texas, shows at the Armadillo World Headquarters, the dayroom at the state mental hospital, an old lady beauty salon, and rodeos. Especially rodeos. My first was the Huntsville Prison Rodeo where I sat in front of a row of French sailors in their Donald Duck uniforms muttering, “Quelle barbare!” to each other.

It was barbaric, and I was hooked. Not on the actual sport but on the unique subcultures that blossomed around what I came to think of as “renegade rodeos:” prison, police, kids, womens, gay, African-American, charreadas, and old-timers. I even heard about a nudist rodeo held, naturally, in California, but I never got close enough to that one to learn the true meaning of 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 located then in the basement of the geography building. There is a Christmas-morning moment that digital photographers will never experience of rushing your film to the lab, loading it onto canisters, swishing, swirling, then holding the negatives up to the amber glow of the safe light. Was the exposure right? The shutter speed? Focus? Had you captured the magic you’d seen through your view finder? Was it there?

Photo by Sarah Bird

The photographers who gathered to develop prints—each one its own wonder of chemical baths and precise sweeps of light—reminded me of the crews my navigator-father flew with during the Cold War. Aggressive, funny, glamorous, filled with bravado. We were shooters. We were badasses. If you needed to be inside the rodeo arena, on the dirt, when they turned out the bull, then that’s where you were. Our photos were the prize catches we brought back to the darkroom, and each one was a challenge to the others to step up their game. My group had especially talented members who went on to win Pulitzers, own their own studios, and fill the pages of every important publication in the country with their work.

But the clock was running out on my fellowship and Journalism, unsoftened by Photo-, threatened again: my master’s thesis was due. It was made clear to me that my extensive forays into the graphic world would not be tolerated for this final project. I wasn’t ready, however, to emerge from the amber glow back into the harsh light of facts. Through some marvel of academic double-speak, I managed to get a proposal approved that would let me continue photographing at my latest visual paradise, the Hyde Park Beauty Salon.

If I were ever to design a writing program, I doubt I could come up with a better project than my beauty salon thesis. It brought together everything I’d learned in anthropology—figuring out how a culture affects an individual—and photography—focusing on the details that tell that individual’s unique story. I had a sense of urgency about capturing this world, since the owner had confided to me that she was selling the shop because she was getting too old to run it and because so many of the clients she’d had for decades were dying.

Here’s how I described the salon I called the Princess Beauty Shoppe:

The Princess Beauty Shoppe is a cozy, tacky place cluttered with the affectionate debris of 40 years. A tray of brownies brought by a patron combine their sweet chocolatey smell with the ammonia stick of hair dyes, straighteners, and permanents. The shelves are lined with dusty jars and bottles filled with beauty products from another era. The chairs in the shop are filled by the users of those products who come once a week to have their hair washed, rolled, dried, and teased into the styles they’ve always worn: beehives; a bouffant pageboy; perms as curly and tight as poodle fur. “‘Just say we’re an old lady shop,’ states the owner, Miss Faith, in a proud apology.

The salon did close, eventually replaced by a custom-framing shop, and I went on to discover the perfect synthesis of all my impulses to capture worlds and people in fiction. I put aside my camera and never set foot in a darkroom again. And now, except for rarefied art photography, darkrooms are gone as well. Chemicals, film, and light replaced by pixels. But sometimes when the writing is going especially well, when it takes me somewhere I could never have gone on my own, an exhilaration that seems bathed in a familiar amber glow overtakes me, and I think again, “No one is going to believe this shit!”


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