Story by DANNY MOGLE // March/April 2017
When it came time to start taking photographs for his latest exhibit — a visual love letter to his hometown of Tyler, Texas — Robert Langham kept all his options open.
After Tyler Museum of Art commissioned the longtime photographer to tell the story of the city, he spent two years training his camera on not only well-known residents but also average people.
Some of the black-and white images in the exhibit are carefully composed in the tradition of studio and commercial photography while others have a gritty feel of visual journalism and documentary.
He shot 2016 Texas Rose Festival Queen Mallory Curtis wearing her crown and with rose petals attached to her face. He photographed Tyler Junior College President Mike Metke hugging a big tree on the college’s front lawn. He posed Family Court Judge Carol Clark and her bailiff, Leonard Spruill, flanking the Goddess of Justice statue in the Smith County Historical Society Museum. Caldwell Zoo Director Hayes Caldwell agreed to be shot shoveling rhino poop.
Langham sometimes scheduled photo shoots but other times showed up where people hung out and simply started photographing what was happening.
He attended the Tyler Rose Parade, the city’s biggest annual event, and shot a beauty queen proudly waving as she passed by in a convertible and a clown on high stilts carrying a big balloon. He went to Tyler’s Bergfeld Park and came across a woman playing a guitar as her young daughter clung to her leg. When Langham showed up at a worship service held under a highway overpass, he captured people bent over in prayer.
“Brickstreet Anthology: Photographs by Robert Langham” is on view at Tyler Museum of Art through May 14.
Langham has had a passion for capturing images ever since he took a photography course at Tyler Junior College in 1971.
“Photography confronts the physical world in such a way, and the physical world is not very manageable, and you’ve got to manage it,” Langham once told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “You’ve got to see through the cracks and subject matter. You’ve got to react to it more than any other art. In art, there is no confrontation with the physical world like there is with photography. It’s a fascinating thing and it changes the way you relate to the world in a very heightened way.”
He earned degrees in photography and art from Sam Houston State University. For years, he has had a commercial photography business and has taught photography at TJC.
As a young photographer, Langham worked with the late Ansel Adams, one of the nation’s most influential landscape photographers. As an artist-in-residence with the U.S. National Parks Service, Langham has shot both sweeping landscapes and intimate profiles.
He spent two weeks in 2014 taking photos at the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado, Arizona, the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Nation. The Parks Service also used Langham to document the people and landscapes of the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Park.
“Brickstreet Anthology” is more personal than some of Langham’s other projects. This time he shot a place he knows and loves.
“I had always wanted to do this,” Langham says. “Tyler has the best people on earth. It is unbelievably unique.”
Langham says one of his biggest challenges was figuring out who and what to shoot. While working on “Brickstreet Anthology,” he posted updates on his blog.
“Some ideas (for subjects and settings) I think up and build out; some I search and find. … The shooting part isn’t a problem, but the scheduling can be. … I’m usually chasing about five people at a time plus going where people are and winging it.
“(I’m) shooting folks everyone knows, like the mayor and sheriff, but many people that are only known in their community. When I can, they are (placed) in a historical background that refers to the city.”
As the project progressed, Langham posted: “Images are getting a little bolder as I go along. The interior mind talk is complex. I’m pushing into what I don’t know, doing things I don’t do.”
Langham shot on film using a Hasselblad camera and developed the prints on warm-tone paper. He says he often kept the framing of the image he captured in the viewfinder.
Caleb Bell, who organized “Brickstreet Anthology” at Tyler Museum of Art says the exhibition captures the “essence of what it means to be a member of our unique community.”
The museum has a history of displaying Langham’s works and relying on his expertise as a fine-art photographer.
“It’s no mere coincidence that when we decided to organize a photography exhibition that focused on the vibrant personalities of our local community, he was the one we called,” TMA Executive Director Chris Leahy says.