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.