Viewing Charles Henry’s growing portfolio these past few years, I’ve always felt like he was a kindred soul. I worked the Rust Belt, while Charles showed an obsessive intent to cover and then expose the lost towns and artifacts of West Texas and beyond. The work Charles has done is as cinematic as it is illuminating, highlighting nearly forgotten towns and dusty monuments of past Texas and American culture. He always puts us firmly in the passenger seat. –RF
Ector Theater, Odessa, Texas
What brought you to photography?
I can still remember learning about the rule of thirds and being amazed by good composition at a young age. It all began in merit badge class during summer camp at Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Summers are pretty hot out there and I remember signing up because it sounded like a good way to get out of the sun for a while. Everything clicked when our instructor showed us the rule of thirds and I’ve been looking for compositions ever since. I went on to photograph for my school newspaper. My real dream was to become a photojournalist but I drifted away from photography in college.
Experiencing the recession of 2008 and feeling frustrated in my job brought me back to photography. I was working at the newspaper in Amarillo at the time. I remember needing a creative outlet and so I returned to photography. I found my love for the mundane in the Texas panhandle and began making photo trips. I love the mundane because its what you miss most once you leave a place. Documenting the ordinary is the best way to photograph how you feel about place and it can reveal a lot about you. Photographing people by not photographing them directly is important to me.
You’ve covered many miles of west Texas. What drives you to seemingly obsessively capture that environment?
Photography is the vehicle I use to document my human experience. My photography is a personal journal and I love giving you the chance to stand in my shoes for a while. I’m originally from the oilfields West Texas, a place where blue collar people work long hours in a flat desert landscape. It’s a place where people love God, hamburgers and high school football. In high school we would always drive around and listen to the radio and dream an about leaving West Texas because staying meant driving drive an oilfield truck and more driving around listening to the radio. I can remember being a kid and riding around in the oilfield with my dad. I had a small notepad that was filled with drawings of pumpjacks. I can remember riding in the red company truck and watching the world go by as country music played in the background.
Oilfield, Sanford, Texas
Your photography ranges from beautiful depictions of Texas towns to extreme desolation amongst the state’s remains and vast terrains. Do you view part of your photography as an exercise in anthropology, an emotional connection, or both?
That’s a great question because it all depends on where I am and how I feel. Home is a central theme in my work and I’m always photographing it. Five years ago I left home and moved to Amarillo. Being in Amarillo and feeling frustrated caused me to become a more emotional photographer. I’m more anthropological when I’m back home, there I want to give you the real experience and share the ordinary. Someday I plan to go back and document all the greasy oilfield spoons and other West Texas garden spot oddities.
Do you see Texas’ renewal, as well as its decay, indicative of American culture in any way?
Texas culture, like American culture, is always dealing with change. People living in rural areas tend to be more traditional while people in urban areas tend to be more progressive. Texas has taught me the importance of staying curious and that change isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be, change is a good thing.
Hamburger House, Vega, Texas
I find many your B&Ws to have an almost cinematic Last Picture Show quality. Is that something you strive for?
West Texas towns look amazing in black and white because black and white forces you to see the details that get lost in a color image. Color is great but black and white is better at recording light, texture and composition in my opinion. Black and white can really emphasize the idea of being out of date and out of touch, perfect for West Texas.
I’m a sucker for any true modern day western and another great Texas film is the movie Hud. Like The Last Picture Show, it’s also based on a novel by Larry McMurtry and filmed in black and white. Hud was filmed just outside Amarillo in Claude, Texas and I’ve walked the streets of Claude many of times with my camera in hand. I highly recommend visiting that place if you get the chance, because few places embody the true Panhandle experience better than Claude.
Trailers, Potter County, Texas
Is there anything better than finding a mid-20th century gas station or motel when you’re out covering the land?
Movie theaters and the place where a generation of young Texans went to dream about cowboys and Indians and watch their favorite heroes like John Wayne come to life. Movies are important in Texas, because even we prefer the Hollywood version of the Texas story and get upset because the real Texas doesn’t look like the Monument Valley. That generation is older now and so are the theaters.
What has influenced you and your photography?
Many things have influenced me – everything from the people around me, to music, to movies and other photographers. Sometimes just being in your car and driving across the vast Texas plains can be inspiring. West Texas has a rich musical heritage with guys like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings to name a few. I also enjoy listening to Townes Van Zandt, Sera Cahoone and Gillian Welch. In photography I find inspiration in the work of Shannon Richardson and Michael Eastman.
Panhandle, Panhandle, Texas
Could you discuss your overall process and favored gear?
I have worked it a little of everything and found I like using the same 35mm lens on my DSLR. I also have an old Yashica Mat that has been good to me and I like running Fuji Provia and Kodak Ektar through it. Last year I moved into large format and picked up a Sinar F2. I’m finding that large format seems to fit my personality the best and I love the whole processes of setting up the camera and developing the images by hand. On my 4×5, I like working with a wide 90mm lens. Great gear is one thing but amazing light is another and I love photographing in the twilight, I love opening the lens all the way and working with naturally diffused light.
Is there anything particular in the works for the future and where is the best place for our readers to find your work?
I’ve recently relocated to Austin and plan to get out and explore Central Texas and the Hill Country soon. This is a new environment to me and I’m still feeling things out, excited to be here. My website is www.charleshenry.com and I’m always active on flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/amarilloposters/
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