Shannon Richardson’s photography is as starkly beautiful, romantic, and sometimes desolate, as the stretches of highway and backwater towns in Texas that draw his attention. His images tend to be steeped in unspoken lore. Whether it’s a portrait or a motel somewhere off the beaten path, the photos seem to want to introduce us to an even greater story. As a photographer, Shannon possesses that kind of enviable skill and keen eye. –RF
What was it that got you into photography?
In the mid 70s when I was 8 or 9 I was given a Kodak Brownie camera to play around with. My parents usually loaded it with B&W film since I assume (they thought) it was cheaper than color film. I also started shooting with the family movie camera as well. That continued into my teens as I began to purchase higher end super 8 equipment to make short films. In the early 80s I received a Pentax K1000 camera as a gift. I took a journalism class in high school to learn how to shoot and develop B&W film as well as print in the darkroom. As the cost of making short films was making them harder to do, I spent more time shooting photographs and acquired some basic darkroom equipment to allow me to print at home.
During the summer of 1988, I came across the biography of Diane Arbus. After reading the book and getting my hands on her monograph, I saw that there was more to photography than what I had encountered up to that point. Her life and work made an impression on me and I began to shift my focus to photography as what I wanted to do.
Aside from your labors of love and artistic endeavors, have you been able to have a career in the commercial field?
For the most part I have managed to make a living from commercial/advertising photography. Basically it’s local and regional clients that make up the majority of the work I do. You can’t specialize in a market this small, so I shoot everything from portraits to products to food. I do like being self-employed as this does allow me the freedom to pursue personal projects. Of course a fortunate situation would be to make a living from the personal work, but as with most artists, that luxury is hard to come by.
Has being a resident of Amarillo helped shape your artistic vision?
I believe it has. My family moved here in 1980 when I was 13 and I started my first year in junior high being an outsider. Although I have lived here for the most part since then, I still feel in some ways that I have retained that status. Amarillo is isolated itself. There are no major metropolitan areas within a 400 mile radius. Being disconnected from the rest of the world adds to the outsider mindset.
Geographically the area is flat, dry and windy without any natural beauty. The landscape is a stark contrast of open sky and dusty earth that appears to go on forever. Cultural diversity is slim to none. Certainly not the kind of place one would look to be inspired. Years ago I felt I needed to live in NYC to have access to a wide range of photographic opportunities. But that wasn’t a possibility or option I could afford. So what happened was that I had to look at my own surroundings for those opportunities.
Over the course of time, I have grown to appreciate and feel a sense of nostalgia for the landscape and culture here. Several years ago I came across the photographs that Jack Delano made in the area during the 30s and 40s. After viewing his work, I felt a sense of having a kindred spirit in what I was photographing here.
You have offered beautifully stark depictions of Route 66 and of the Texas region. What draws you to that material?
I have always been drawn to the remnants of decades past – specifically the 50s, 60s and 70s. The nostalgic, cultural and historical elements of that past are fading and are being replaced with a boring generic landscape that looks the same anywhere you go. Having grown up in the 70s, I still have a vivid memory of that time; what it looked like; what it felt like. So I find myself looking for these elements. They have become an essential part of what and why I photograph.
Texas and the southwest in general has a certain allure that invites exploration and a sense of adventure. The landscapes are vast and dramatic in scope. Venturing off the main highways you pass through places that have become time capsules of bygone eras. Their past is rarely built over and usually is left to slowly decay.
I never traveled Route 66 when it was in its prime, but part of what pulled me into documenting the road was the memories of my childhood road trips that it brought back. In 2004, I was pulling into Tucumcari, NM one evening as a string of vintage neon lights of the motels and cafes lit up the old highway through the middle of town. I was surprised and fascinated at the sight of it. Similar landscapes like this were seen through the windshield of my family’s big station wagon in my youth. I made a point to photograph what I saw that evening.
From that point, I photographed along Route 66 on various road trips with no particular project in mind. As time passed, places I had shot earlier were disappearing. In 2009 I assessed the images I had and realized a book was a possibility. Working with a sense of purpose and urgency, I made multiple trips for 2 years photographing Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Don’s Old Car
Is there any kind of statement in your photography?
I suppose any statement in my work is subtle and most of the time I am so immersed in the process of a project that I don’t really think about it. Usually I will start building a series of images quite randomly. It isn’t until months or years later that I see what the photographs are saying. But it’s something I struggle to put into succinct words. Being a visual person, I see the motifs, themes and atmosphere of what I photograph and sense a certain meaning behind them. In my head, I know what the work is about and the images convey what I set out to document. Yet any attempts to write about it or describe it frustrate me.
As you can imagine, I hate writing artist’s statements which of course are always required when submitting your work to be considered for anything. My take on it is I am a photographer and not a writer. Ironically, when other people review my work, they write in detail basically dead on what I can’t ever put into words.
Who and/or what has been an influence on you?
As I mentioned before, Diane Arbus was an early influence. Over the years, various photographers such as Robert Adams, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Jeff Brouws, Mary Ellen Mark, Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Larry Fink and Keith Carter have been sources of inspiration.
I started a photo blog, Electrolite, about six and half years ago as a way to keep me motivated creatively. Usually I start these kinds of projects with the best of intentions but they kind of fall by the wayside. Luckily I stuck with it and it became a source of growth for me. Through the photo blog, I’ve made online acquaintances whose photography and ongoing projects continue amaze and inspire me. Many of which you’ve featured here.
My appreciation of film making has had an impact on how I see things visually. It’s no surprise that many of my favorite films are shot in black and white. I really admire the great contrasts of light and dark in film noir cinematography. That quality of light is an aspect that I often look for when composing an image.
Lastly, traveling and putting myself in unfamiliar places and situations always keeps my eyes open to what I may find.
Here It Is
Could you tell us a bit about your preferred gear and maybe a little about your overall process?
For the most part, I’ve always been a one camera, one lens and one film kind of guy. For the last 8 years I’ve used a Hasselblad 503cw with an 80mm lens. Tri-X 320 was my film of choice but I recently switched to T-Max 400 since the Tri-X was discontinued. I develop the film myself and do my own scans. My darkroom work – dodge, burn and contrast adjustments are done in Photoshop. Prints are made on archival Baryta fiber-based inkjet paper with an Epson printer.
One of the portfolios on your site is entitled Texas Is a Fine Place to Die. I love the title – could you provide some insight into how it came to be?
I became interested in exploring and photographing the small towns of the region after watching “Hud,” which is an excellent 1963 black and white film that was shot near Amarillo in the town of Claude. It captured the sparse landscape and iconic Texas rural way of life for that time period. I started building a series of images that portrayed the places, people and traditions that was the transition from the wild west to the new west. A generation when cowboys drove Cadillacs and shoot outs took place on the screen at the matinee.
I posted an early image from the series online a few years back. The photo was of a rusting old car behind a chain link fence. An internet acquaintance commented on it saying “Texas is a fine place to die.” I thought the observation was great and immediately knew that statement characterized the project perfectly.
On The Range
You’ve completed one book, Route 66: American Icon. Are there plans for another?
I think most photographers want to do a book of their work, but it’s easier said than done. The Route 66 book was a monumental project and it absorbed a lot of time and energy. Not to mention money, as well. I felt the scope and importance of the Route 66 images would make a great book, but actually getting it made was a learning experience. I literally did everything from the layout to the cmyk profiles to dealing directly with the printer. It worked out and I officially self-published my own photographic book.
I would like to publish a book of the Texas Is a Fine Place to Die photographs when I finish that project. Ideally it would be great for a publisher to do this book but no one has stepped forward as of yet. So as I have learned about making things happen in this business of photography, you have to do it yourself.
Shannon, where is the best place for our readers to see your work?
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