an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
I begin with a caveat. This abbreviated portfolio of “wildlife” photographs from the seventies does not proclaim or prove THE END OF AUSTIN so much as it poses a question.
It is really a visual baseline to measure the wellbeing of the Barton Creek watershed. Two conclusions are possible: 1) these photos can be duplicated today because Austin has protected and preserved this special urban greenbelt or, 2) these photos cannot be duplicated today because the end of this historic Austin treasure is ominously closer than it was just forty years ago.
This portfolio of photographs was taken during the mid-1970’s crawling in and along Barton Creek when I was supposed to have been writing my dissertation at The University of Texas. They were shot primarily on Kodachrome X, ASA 64, with a Pentax Spotmatic and extension tubes. They miraculously survived in a cardboard box in a series of damp and dusty gar-ages for almost half a century. I just recently digitized many of the survivors.
They were photographed entirely in what is now referred to as “lower Bar-ton Creek.” The creek itself is mostly implied. My interest was in chronicling anything small and alive in a format at the boundary of nature and art.
My method typically involved sitting in a potentially productive place for a minimum of 30 minutes. During this time two things would happen: 1) I would slowly become part of the background for the local denizens, and 2) I would shift my own perspective and field of view to become sensitive to the myriad of small things happening around me.
I invite you now to take a close look and to replicate my effort with more flexible knees and the benefit of a half century’s revolution in digital photography and macro zoom lenses. Is the Barton Creek I portrayed ending or surviving and thriving?
CURIOUS WATER SNAKE — This was a fortuitous combination of luck and patience. I was slowly wading in shallow water and saw this little friend looking for a place to hide from me. He ducked into a small pool that was, fortunately for me, a blind alley. I had a good notion that he had nowhere to go so I quietly lay down in the creek with my face and camera at water level and waited. After a long, long time curiosity got the best of him and he just barely poked his nose and eyes out of the water to see if I was still there. I immediately took the photo, and just as soon as my finger moved on the shutter the game was over and he was gone.
LEAF IN ALGAE — Barton Creek is an intermittent stream. Historically as summer progresses and fall approaches stream flow diminishes. Eventually even the disconnected pools which are left evaporate and disappear until the next spring. I took sad photos of many dead fish left as this inexorable process took its toll, but this photograph of a decaying sycamore leaf rest-ing on a mat of algae is gentler testimony to the same phenomenon. Leaves fall and water disappear in an annual cycle.
BLUE DRAGONFLY — This was a cool early morning and a newly emerged dragonfly adult was just pumping hemolymph into its wings to ex-pand them to their full extent. That gave me time to get close and take this photograph while he was unable to fly. I bet he was glad all I was taking were photographs. I was mesmerized by being privy to the process and by the beautiful iridescent blue of his wings.
TEXAS ALLIGATOR LIZARD — I don’t know who was more surprised by this encounter, him or me. I didn’t even know that alligator lizards existed, and I don’t think he knew anything about humans. You can see that he was making an immediate U-turn. I took the photograph and looked him up later, thinking originally that he was a baby alligator.
PEAKABOO — Quite a few Texas garter snakes worked diligently during my time along Barton Creek to cure me of my fear of snakes. They were always basically friendly and tolerant of my intrusions, even during their mating aggregations which they continued unfazed by my presence. They all had such amicable personalities that it was difficult to think ill of snakes after meeting them.
YOUNG LEOPARD FROG — This one said he was glad I wasn’t a preda-tory bird hovering over him in the creek and was quite willing to pose once he knew I was just a harmless photographer.
BLACK JUMPING SPIDER — Also known as bold or daring jumping spi-ders, this little guy can’t help but make you think of “here’s looking at you.” Actually you are just seeing four of his eight eyes; the other four are on top of his head. You are also seeing the limited depth of field that slow films of the day gave one even in bright sunlight.
GRASSHOPPER LOVE — I felt a little voyeuristic taking this picture but didn’t realize then that I had plenty of time for photography. Mating is no quickie for grasshoppers, said to take from 45 minutes to an entire day. Males die shortly thereafter which doesn’t seem to dissuade them.
DAMSELFLY — This damselfly kept coming back to the same spot after making hunting forays about its limited territory. Once I established that pattern, it was easy to set up for his return. This is a prime example of the advantage of at least 30 minutes in each spot, seeing patterns of activity and blending into the scenery. If you don’t move and do wear drab clothing you become vegetation in the minds of your subjects.
WALKING STICK — Another advantage of sitting still and absorbing the karma of a place is that you begin to see folks who are quite well camou-flaged. And an advantage of photographing the well camouflaged is that they are generally confident of their disguises and don’t feel compelled to move away quickly. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Walk confidently and be a stick.”
Rupert Chambers was a Plan II student in the early sixties, received his Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas in 1971 and was a PhD candidate in Government during the seventies. He still hasn’t finished his dissertation and likely won’t. He is now retired and pursuing his passion for photography. You may find his website at www.rupertchambers.photography and his work on Instagram @fotorupert.
I work at apartment complexes in the Barton Creek area, and some days the buildings are just blanketed with walking sticks. Looks amazing. I’ll have to bring my camera the next time …