The Book of Big Bend

2 Mar

Texas’ Big Bend: A Photographic Adventure from the Pecos to the Rio Grande by Michael H. Marvins. (Bright Sky Press, $35)

Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts. – Minor White 

By ROY FLUKINGER 

It was one of Texas’s finest historians, Kenneth Ragsdale, who first pointed out the obvious:  that for most of us to get to the Big Bend region of the state required a commitment of time and purpose.  Boy, is he ever right. 

Located in far West Texas in that deep curve of land and the Rio Grande from which it derives its simple but eloquent name, the Big Bend has always been off the main road and major superhighways.  You can reach it by more than one byway, of course, but to do so you have to know where to turn off, make certain that you have a full tank of gas, and start following the signs.  You will see a lot of different country, meet an interesting group of locals, and have plenty of time to celebrate and/or question your decision.  When you reach your goal, however, you may be surprised or challenged or envigorated or enfolded by a different peace – but whatever else, you will not be sorry you made the journey.  As my dad remarked on our first trip there, “It’s a long drive but you will be glad you made it.” 

To get from here to there is routinely no small feat.  The traveler who heads for this far corner of our very large state is making a commitment of of spirit as well as body.  Few people just happen upon this 800,000+ acres of parkland and its surrounding territories.  You may be impelled by simple curiosity, or any number of human activities – from birdwatching to photography, from sightseeing to camping – or simply by what John Graves once described as the “hard thing…to get slowed down.”  Regardless, you have made the intentional turnoff into a land of extreme beauty as well as one that continues to witness contrasts on both a human and a universal scale. 

Michael H. Marvins has made that long drive numerous times in the past years.  He has taken the turnoffs and followed the roads and trails into, around and through the Big Bend and its surrounding towns and countryside.  A third-generation photographer from Houston, Texas, he is also a critical collector and scholar of the history of the medium, as well as being an active supporter – along with his wife, Mickey – of many significant photographic organizations around the city, the state and the nation.  Through his active participation in all these important endeavors he has become a tireless student of the discipline he serves.  And most significantly, as a passionate practitioner of photography he has continued to evolve and grow as a fine artist to boot. 

In bringing his cameras to the Big Bend, Marvins has applied an immediacy to his image-making as well as his typical sense of enthusiasm and adventure.  Unlike most of the photographers who have covered the region, he has not sought to document or monumentalize the land.  Although Mike may supply us with the barest identification of place, naming is not his primary concern – nor, in truth, should it be the viewer’s.  Leave it to the guide-book illustrators to attempt to utilize the camera to describe a particular site or location.  Mike’s artistry is concerned with the experience of this world – of the pure feel of a subject that is the true aim of the dedicated artist. 

In part this evolves from the expeditiousness of Mike’s approach to photography.  The images he shares with you are the product of many cameras – ranging from fine larger-format instruments to inexpensive pocket apparatus – as well as the application of more than one technique or printing process.  Even more significantly may be the circumstances of their creation.  An image may be seized while he is on the move with a pack of Boy Scouts or crossing the basin on horseback; indeed, the vast majority of these images were made not on singularly intentional photographic expeditions but rather while Marvins was taking bites out of life in a variety of ways.  You get the sense that if Mike misses what Minor White calls “the horizon of a moment” he does not lament the fact but rather enjoys the afterglow and then happily speeds onward to the next moment that the Big Bend will inevitably be offering to him. 

The colors you will find throughout his works are rich in a fashion well beyond the merely descriptive.  Many a famous landscape photographer has used the medium to add credence to his subjects, but Mike’s work has become more transcendent, adding entire levels of interpretation to desert, mountain, tree and river.   Even his skies and clouds – some of the hardest visual components for every photographer – work to complement rather than contrast the effect of a composition.  There is an almost economical eloquence in these photographs.  They are very reminiscent of what Winslow Homer was able to capture in woods and surf more than a century ago and half a continent away: an emotional power in great colors that are variations on minimal hues instead of myriad rainbow effects.  I doubt that an expanse as rich in form and light as the Big Bend probably does not possess a singularly absolute range of color, but if it does I am certain that Mike is the photographer who has come the closest to revealing it. 

I encourage you to view these photographs not as images of specific places but instead as the celebrations of moments from the vast panorama of time that makes the Big Bend such a fantastic experience.  Each may be the product of but an instant but the effect is most often a rendering of the transient nature of life itself.  When I contemplate Mike’s vision I most often think back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that men may own the land but “none of them owns the landscape.  There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is the poet.” 

The fact is that when one can see as instinctively and poetically as Mike Marvins, one has already traveled another long road, this one leading from the heart to the eye.  The landscapes he interprets and presents to us all reveal a beauty that is not merely defined by their physical essence but even more so by the human experience of that land itself.  May that long drive never be ending. 

Roy Flukinger is Senior Research Curator for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin

EXHIBITIONS: Museum of Western Art (mowatx.org) May 15-Sept 6; Houston Museum of Natural Science, June 19-January 11,2011.

 

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