Really Big Bend
By Earl Nottingham
A true understanding and appreciation of the Big Bend region of Texas requires seeing beyond its grand landscape of mountains, canyons and desert sunsets. These are icons, certainly, but also pieces of a much larger puzzle that, when put together, reveal not only a place, but a mindset that has drawn pioneers, philosophers and romantics to this seemingly desolate and inhospitable corner of the world.
In Big Bend Pictures (176 pages, 102 duotones, hardcover, University of Texas Press, $39.95), photographer James Evans reveals much of the puzzle by stealthily infusing himself into the landscape and lives of such legendary pioneers as Hallie Stillwell and Barton Warnock, as well as those of desert rats, misfits and beautiful children. He has created a body of images that, like the desert, are veneered with whimsical, paradoxical and sometimes surreal appearances. Whether capturing topsy-turvy geology, fern-shrouded waterfalls against dry desert, a bull snake on a sofa or a jackass at a wedding, Evans celebrates the trappings of each subject, stitching them together with a common thread of dignity.
A native West Virginian, Evans arrived in Marathon in 1988 and plunged into the photography business, working out of an old store turned photo gallery and selling his black-and-white images as note cards and lamp shades. His easy-going style, sincerity and passion for his art brought him into the homes and lives of desert dwellers who don’t easily open their doors to newcomers. His distinctive work now graces numerous publications, galleries and homes.
Rarely static, Evans’ documentary-style portraits have a “decisive moment” quality. And just as the desert gives no quarter to living things, nothing is sacred to Evans’ irreverent lens, regardless of age, race, social status or species. He exposes life and death without partiality. Technically, the black-and-white images are masterful. While each image could easily stand on its own merit, Evans includes personal narratives in a “Notes and Stories” section of his book, giving added depth to a two-dimensional medium.
For those of us hopelessly captivated by the siren call of the Big Bend, Evans’ images are pleasant visits with old friends and familiar places; they reaffirm why we fell in love with the area in the first place. To those who haven’t traveled to the Big Bend, this book is as close as you can get to the creosote-scented air after a desert rain or sitting on the porch listening to Miss Hallie’s stories.