An interesting life on the road for Texas Highways

There are close to 80,000 miles of highway in the Lone Star State, and at first glance it seems like former Texas Highways Magazine photo editor J. Griffis Smith has traveled and photographed all of them.

A full retrospective and book highlighting Smith’s 30-year career entitled “On the Road with Texas Highways: A Tribute to True Texas” are currently on display at the Katy & E. Don Walker Education Center and offer viewers a glimpse at his exciting life on the road.

“I started carrying around small samples of my work to show people and after I’d take the contact sheet away, I’d ask which images they remembered,” Smith said about editing his large body of work into one show. “I wanted to show the images that could speak for themselves.”

Growing up in Caldwell, Smith watched his father Joe Smith, an accomplished artist and doctor, create photographs and sculpture from a young age.

“He would come home from work, have a cup of coffee and then immediately go and start making art,” Smith remembers. “He taught me a lot about thinking outside the box and doing different things.”

In high school, Smith noticed that the yearbook photographer was always free to roam. That helped to peek his interest in a career behind the lens.

“I hated sitting still and I loved having access to interesting places, I still do,” Smith said.

One look at Smith’s work and it’s clear that like his father, he enjoys shaking things up. From striking portraits and quirky armadillo sculptures to pristine landscapes cast under lightning-filled skies, Smith’s work blends together seamlessly and shows a diverse view of Texas few have ever seen.

Thanks to a special technique he calls “light-painting,” Smith has learned to breathe life into inanimate objects and dark or hard to photograph scenes.

“I was photographing in Jefferson and trying to capture the Pride House at dusk and it just wasn’t working” Smith said. At the suggestion of a friend, Smith grabbed a large boat light and began to shine it on the house while the shutter of his camera was open.

“That Polaroid came out and the scene was lit up like a football field” Smith added. “That was it.”

Since then, Smith has been perfecting the technique and it shows in his body of work. The added light gives a surreal feeling to each scene and adds a new dimension that makes you feel like you are actually in the photograph. It’s a way of viewing a landscape that one would not have the chance to see otherwise, and the “other worldly” light fits the scene so perfectly, it’s difficult to notice unless you’re really looking for it.

Over his decades traversing Texas highways, Smith has had his fair share of memorable experiences. From “jamming” with Willie Nelson before a photo-shoot to being tabbed to photograph Governor Ann Richards before she left office, Smith has pretty much seen it all and taken the photos to prove it.

When it comes to capturing a portrait, Smith likes to take his time and really get to know the subject beforehand.

“I spend a lot of time talking with people,” he said. “I may spend as much as an hour with a person before I photograph them. … I want to know what they’re thinking.

“We can talk about me later, I want to talk about you” Smith adds.

His portraits are deeply personal and seem to capture a light inside the subject that is reflective of his process. Looking in the eyes of the photographs, it’s easy for viewers to tell that the artist and his subjects share a connection.

Smith retired from his position at Texas Highways Magazine in late August after working for the company for 30 years. However, if you hang around him for even a few minutes, you could never tell.

After completing his 212-page book a few months ago, he says he already has enough content to produce another book and plans on doing so. His exhibition at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum will remain on display until Sept. 28, then will move to The Arts Center of Waco for a show beginning Oct. 30.

Smith said he also plans to host a photography workshop at The Arts Center on Nov. 7 for those who are interested in learning more about his process.

After the show ends, Smith says he plans to continue his travels and one day escape the city limits of Austin for a more permanent, rural environment while still photographing every day.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s the case, Smith has penned a library and shows no sign of stopping.

Working under the lights in Death Valley

I could feel it the moment I woke up on Saturday morning. For once, the usual lack of sleep and nagging feeling that I’m going to forget something important gave way to a nervous excitement I couldn’t contain.

It was game day for the Bearkats and the road was waiting.

The five-hour drive through quiet, back-country roads and unfamiliar, swamp-lined highways would usually garner my full attention as a photographer, but today, my eyes are only looking for the stadium.

At the top of the bridge over the Mississippi River, we cross into Baton Rouge and our sports editor, Gene Schallenberg, points to something off in the distance. “There it is, Tiger Stadium.”

We arrive four hours before kickoff, but the atmosphere feels like it’s only moments away.

The entire town is decked out in purple and gold, and even in my not-so-subtle light orange shirt, I feel right at home.

The LSU campus is pulsing with football fever. Tailgaters pack the parking lots and roadways, feasting on boudin, po-boys and toasting with ice cold beer. It’s 100 miniature parties combining into one massive blowout and everyone’s invited.

Every 20 feet we walk, we’re greeted by another set of booming speakers, one more flat screen TV broadcasting college football games while folks gleefully move from tent to tent.

Directly in front of the stadium, a live band revs up the masses, playing every kind of music you could think of. The crowds gather and strain to catch a glimpse of Mike the Tiger before he leads the team down “Victory Hill.”

Plain and simple, this isn’t a sport, it’s like a religion.

As we wander to find orange-clad Bearkat fans, they’re easy to spot in a sea of Tigers. They’re already partying with the wild LSU fans, sharing drinks and swapping predictions before the big game.

A few are even teaching the hometown team how to do the “Eat ’em up, Kats” chant.

Everyone is in good spirits. This is a shared passion and the color you wear does not matter. The gates open and at once the crowds move in unison toward the stadium. The lights are slowly coming on as the sun finishes its descent. It’s go time and my job has just begun.

Underneath the packed bleachers at Tiger Stadium lies a hidden, cramped space that boasts a code of ethics unlike any other.

This shared photographer work room holds more than $200,000 worth of combined equipment and remains both unlocked and unguarded over the course of the game.

We’re all here for the same reason and while most of us have never met, we share an unspoken trust that goes unnoticed by the rest of the crowd. As I shuffle to set up the perfect rig, the first drumbeat pulses through the stadium and I rush to the field to capture my favorite part of the pageantry.

Sure, the NFL has the spotlight, they have the million-dollar salaries, the star-studded rosters and massive stadiums, but nothing compares to 100 or more instruments thundering out in unison, quickly changing direction and saluting different sections of the stands, as the members of The Golden Band From Tigerland march as one.

The sublime rhythm of the drums, crashing symbols and smooth horns fill the air and add something to the experience.

Each member of the band sounds stronger when they play together, just like the team. Once the national anthem has been sung, the coin tossed and final handshakes have parted, it’s time to put boot to ball.

The crowd erupts and the noise is deafening. Once the ball is in the air for the first time, I don’t stop moving until halftime and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The plays go quickly and it’s often a guessing game as to where I should place myself on the sideline.

Three receivers on the left side and Bearkats quarterback Jared Johnson is lined up in a shotgun formation. I’ve got less than 15 seconds to get to the other side of the field. With a 30-pound camera rig on a 5-foot monopod and spare lenses strapped to my back, it must be really funny to watch me in an all-out sprint down the sidelines.

Luckily, the Jumbotron camera men are focusing on the snap and not on my awkward juke that barely misses taking out a Bearkat cheerleader. That would look pretty bad on SportsCenter. Nothing I’ve ever experienced compares to being on the sidelines at a college football game.

Everything is surreal and it’s over before I know it.

The fans shout at the top of their lungs, coaches and coordinators bark out plays and changes to the lineup with only seconds left to act.

Every yard gained is a battle, every tackle made is a celebration and the players’ passion and energy spills out onto the turf. They hold nothing back.

With more than 100,000 fans watching, you can run the full gambit of emotions before the first quarter is over. It’s a whirlwind and I’m blessed to be right in the middle of it.

What makes this night truly worthwhile is knowing the necessity of my assignment.

On any given Saturday I’ll shoot more than 2,000 frames attempting to capture the essence of a game. If only one of those photos make you feel even for a moment like you were at that game, I consider the entire night a success.