A few parting thank-you notes

Today is my last day here at The Huntsville Item. As I clean out my desk that’s filled with more candy wrappers than six humans should consume in a single month, I want to take a few minutes to reflect and give thanks.

I could fill this entire edition and all of next month’s newspapers telling stories of the amazing experiences I’ve had over these last three years, but there’s more important copy to print.

However, I can say this: I’ve never held a job that’s helped me grow so much as an individual. And I really don’t think I ever will.

From freezing-cold high school soccer game photo assignments to meeting some of our state and nation’s highest-ranking public servants, every moment here has been an incredible journey. I’ve had a chance to learn something new every day.

More often than not, journalists and editors endure a thankless role. The sweet thank-you notes and emails we get are lifeblood, but they can sometimes be overshadowed by the criticism that often comes with this job.

So I’d like to dole out a few thank-you notes before I go.

To our city and education reporter, Marissa Nunez: There are few beats that offer drier subject matter to journalists, but they also happen to be some of the most important and Marissa, you make that known in your work. It’s been amazing to watch you carve out your niche as a writer while covering the most vital parts of our city. You have incredible talent as a journalist and I know that you’ll find success in every aspect of life. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sitting next to you and sharing countless inside jokes that no one else will ever get. Thank you for friendship and the endless string of “Parks & Recreation” quotes. And, for the record, Kazakh-STAN!!

To our news editor, Cody Stark: I’ve never met someone who could be a friend to everyone like you are. There’s a reason we’ve always been on top of the cops-and-courts beats and breaking news. That’s because everyone who meets you knows you’re a person who can be trusted. You’ve been able to turn a wet-behind-the-ears photographer into a person who could handle almost any situation, no matter how crazy or unpredictable. I can’t thank you enough for the patience and knowledge you’ve shown me. I’ll miss your lectures via the stick most of all.

To our sports writers, JP McBride and Scott Stone: To the guys who travel the longest distances, covering every game from the first of the season to the bitter end of the playoffs, you all deserve the greatest of thanks. The press box is no piece of cake. You’re taking down every stat, every play, every score while live-Tweeting to our readers and cutting a story that puts us there in the stands. That’s a tough gig and you guys do stellar work. It’s been a blast palling around with you both as we cover our teams in triumph and defeat.

To our sports editor, Gene Schallenberg: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working alongside you, even when we butt heads. You’re a tireless worker and a phenomenal writer who has a knack for being able to do everything at once. It’s been fun driving all over this great state to cover games with you. Your dedication to the job shows through every day. Even when it seemed like we didn’t have the resources or the manpower to cover a certain event, you always found a way to make sure our local athletes get the coverage they deserve. More often than not, it was because you went out of your way to make it happen. Thanks for everything, Gene, sincerely.

To Traci Gallin: You’re undoubtedly the backbone of this office and you’ve been a godsend to me nearly every day I’ve worked here. If I didn’t know how to do something, you did, and you knew how to do it well and teach it with patience. I’m convinced that if everyone at the paper was simultaneously incapacitated, we’d still have a paper tomorrow because you can literally do every job under the sun. Thank you for all that you do and for your friendship.

To our press and mailroom staff: We wouldn’t have a paper every day without your tireless work. I haven’t had the chance to work with many of you, but you all deserve our unending gratitude. Thank you for working the late, long and often unpredictable hours and taking the time to ensure that our readers wake up to a paper most every day of the week.

To our advertising reps, office staffers, classified gurus, business managers and everyone here at The Item: Every single person at this paper plays a vital role and I’ve been very blessed to be play my small part in it. Thank you for continuing to make this paper the trusted and reliable source that it is in our community. I will miss you all greatly.

To our publisher, Rita Haldeman: Yours is, by far, one of the most thankless roles in our industry. Thank you for your unwavering support of our newsroom and your belief in me from the start. This paper is and will continue to be successful because of your leadership.

To our managing editor, Tom Waddill: Sir, you are the true definition of a leader. More often than not, you’re the first one in the office every day and the last one to leave. You are always the first to jump on an assignment and show us the way to do the job right. You consistently give of yourself to make sure the news gets out every single day and you work tirelessly to make sure that we all don’t get burned out in the process. You lead by example and I’ve learned so much about how to be an effective leader, a good listener and a decent human being just by being your employee and your friend. Thank you for teaching me how to write, edit, interview and design pages effectively. Thank you for your patience in everything you do. I’ll miss you showing me up on the golf course, but most of all, I’ll miss being able to call you my boss.

To the people of Huntsville: You are truly what has made this job special. Getting the chance to travel this town and shine a light on all the wonderful people who make it great has been a blessing. As a journalist, I’ve had the chance to meet folks who are really making a difference in this world. Whether you’re volunteering on the weekends for the animal shelter, organizing a small church event, baking cookies for a fundraiser or simply raising your voice at a City Council meeting, being involved where you live is what truly makes a town special.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have seen and documented all that I could for the past three years.

Thank you.

Perfection in print: The National Parks Photography Project

Few experiences in life can compare to spending time in one of America’s national parks. Whether you’re paddling up the iceberg-ridden waters of Glacier Bay’s East Arm, breathing in the wide open scenery of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, or hiking up to a primitive site on the High Chisos Trail in Big Bend, the spacious solitude of protected nature can soothe even the most troubled soul.

If you happen to be between excursions, or lacking the time to sneak out to one of “America’s Greatest Treasures,” the Sam Houston Memorial Museum is currently hosting an exhibition that will visually transport you to all 59 national parks in a matter of hours.

Over the last four years, photographer Mark Burns, a Houston native, has been charged with the exhilarating task of documenting each park for The National Parks Photography Project. Spanning more than two dozen states, the collection pays tribute to the rich history and heritage of our national parks while celebrating the centennial of The National Parks Service body.

The exhibit, which will be on display at the Katy & E. Don Walker, Sr. Education Center through May 22, is presented in a simple and effective manner, with no unnecessary features. Clean black frames with white matting let the photographs do all the talking, while powerful quotes by past Presidents, writers and statesmen — many touching on the importance of preservation — float above the symmetrical groupings in subtle vinyl.

In rich, black and white prints, Burns’ understanding of the shape and scope of still life’s power is evident before you reach the second piece. These are no ordinary landscape snapshots, they are full, natural events captured in an instant with months of preparation. Burns has created intricate situations that magnificently portray the majesty of untouched nature when the only human forcing is that of preservation.

Working in true form with a large-format camera and fiber-based papers, the technical prowess shown by Burns is remarkable. Perfectly spanning the full monochromatic scale in every frame, each print seems to be born from ultimate patience and perseverance, both on the trail and in the darkroom.

Wispy clouds play in unison with the cresting peak of a mountain, reflections are framed in exact detail and common sights such as Yosemite’s monumental El Capitan are translated into other-worldly scenes through precise framing, toning and Burns’ ability to wait — for weeks it seems — for that perfect moment to release the shutter.

While the collection brings back memories of Ansel Adams in both production and presence, it seems to share the same romantic connection to the land that Adams had. Burns treats the landscape as if it had never been photographed before, highlighting contrasting elements, sprawling textures and astounding vistas to show the land’s worth and merit.

Over the next two weeks, take an hour (or three) and immerse yourself in this powerful show. The nearest national park may be hours away, but right now, all of them are just around the corner.

For more information on The National Parks Photography Project, visit www.mburnsphoto.com or www.thenationalparksphotographyproject.com.

For those who continue to rock, we say thank you

The butterflies are always there, lodged deep beneath my chest and knocking around the confines of an empty stomach. No matter how many times I do this, I’m always nervous.

It doesn’t matter if we’re playing at a coffeehouse for 12 or a brightly-lit, staged venue for hundreds, just getting up on stage makes me short of breath. The lights are bright and it’s dead quiet. The crowd takes turns staring at us blankly and sipping their overpriced drinks. They’re waiting for us to do something.

A sideways glance from my bassist and guitarist and the lead singer whispers, “You guys ready?”

At once, our instruments blast out in unison through the smoke-filled air. The first song always has to hit them hard, for if you don’t grab the audience in the first five minutes, you probably won’t for the last 40.

The speakers’ first thunderous blast knocks away any remaining nervousness or reservations I had about tonight. Now, I just need to focus on not messing up. But like clockwork, I drop at least one drumstick per show.

These crazy Friday nights represent only 5 percent of what I consider to be a glorious second job. It’s a mostly unpaid position with late nights, early mornings, conference calls and an expense report that will never see reimbursement. There’s no health, vision or dental insurance, but the benefits package is unreal.

I get to play music.

So much goes into actually getting to the show that once the day is finally here, it’s over in a flash. It’s the countless hours of rehearsal and preparation melding into a 45-minute package for your enjoyment or disinterest.

It’s the seedy bar owners, tricking you into playing one more free set in the hopes of a sweet, paid gig. It’s the cancellations, the empty promises and the “constant content updates.” It’s a beautiful balancing act and a massive weight of responsibility.

It’s perfect.

While the idea of the lone rebel musician is overpopularized and exciting, it’s hardly ever true. Any musician of any caliber will quickly tell of the support system that got them to where they are. They’re the friends and family who come to every show they can, rain or shine. They’re the parents who purchase a shiny, red, loud and obnoxious drum set for a skinny, 14-year-old, redhead (Thanks Mom and Dad). They’re the audience members who smile and bob their heads, approaching you after and show to say they dig what you’re doing.

They’re the reason we’re here.

There’s something special about creating music as a band. Every mistake you make has the potential to turn into something beautiful.

Completely separate individuals push their creative forces together in order to make a unified body of sound. We bounce off each other, adding and subtracting from what the others give. We all sound greater because of each other’s presence.

In my short time playing music, I’ve had the pleasure of playing at countless venues, big and small, with a rag-tag assortment of musicians. I learned long ago that it will never be about the money.

It’s not fame or fortune that offers the most exciting prospects in this field. For me, it’s the moments of pure bliss experienced during the act of delivery. It’s for that song played perfectly. It’s for the look on your face at the end of our set.

We drive hundreds of miles, spend thousands of dollars and pour our blood sweat and tears into what we do for you. Our music is a huge part of our lives and it’s so much more than just a hobby or a phase.

For anyone out there, putting yourselves on the line in any creative endeavor, we salute you. Never stop doing what you do, because someone will always be listening. I too know the reasons why you can’t stop. It’s a part of who you are. It’s the process of creation and the fear of rejection that drives us to get out there. It’s about pouring our lives into something in the hope that it means something to someone else, too.

In all honesty, it’s about the butterflies, those beautiful, clumsy butterflies.

Take a trip across Texas

In an age of smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras, it’s easy for anyone to assume the role of a photographer.

Millions of images from far off destinations flood our computer screens and news feeds so fast that they all seem to blend together into one big blur of light and color.

While it’s easy to get lost in the fray, remember this mantra; quantity rarely means quality.

That mantra, however, does not hold true for J. Griffis Smith’s new book “On the Road with Texas Highways: A Tribute to True Texas.”

The sublime quality of Smith’s work will hit you over the head before you even crack the cover. And as for the quantity? Well, he’s been perfecting his craft for nearly 40 years and it shows.

Smith has spent the last 30 years as both a photographer and editor for Texas Highways Magazine and his assignments have taken him all across the Lone Star State.

His 212-page book operates as a photographic journal, whisking the reader away to a ghost town in Terlingua, a dive bar in Blanco and every small and large destination in between.

It’s easy to tell that Smith has an intimate connection with both his subjects and the state of Texas as a whole. The simplest landscapes come alive on the page and his subjects seem to be in a perfectly natural state of existence.

As a photographer, I can say that these are no easy feats to accomplish on a consistent basis.

From a technical standpoint, Smith uses every page as a chance to show off his photographic chops. His composition and framing thrust the viewer into the scene as if they have become a part of what’s happening. At times you can tell he had to place himself into rather precarious positions to grab the perfect shot.

Whether he’s leaning over the railing atop the San Jacinto Monument, or crawling on a saw-dust filled floor to capture the motion of a cowboy’s two-step, Smith is actively placing both himself and the viewer into the action.

Technical prowess with a camera doesn’t come through instruction. It only comes through countless hours of shooting, experimenting, editing and repeating that process on a seemingly infinite timeline.

Through his lengthy tenure at Texas Highways Magazine, Smith had plenty of time to hone his skills and you can tell he takes chances with how he executes each shot.

He utilizes motion blur, double exposures and abstract focal points which ask the viewer to spend some time with each photograph. One quick glance won’t show you all they have to offer; the viewer has room to move around in each work. By using long exposures and natural light, dreary landscapes and concert halls shine with an almost surreal quality and each tells a story, leaving bits of information out for the audience to fill in.

He’s even trademarked an interesting technique he calls “light painting,” which involves shining a flash light on a scene while the camera’s shutter is still open. The effect produces captivating images that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Street signs begin to glow and a would-be static sculpture tends to take on a life of it’s own. Smith can find movement where there is none.

While the photographs are by far the best part of his book, they are only strengthened by small snippets of text, written the photographer himself. More often than not, Smith describes his experiences on location and his interactions with the people involved.

While the photographs tell the story, Smith’s voice adds to the conversation by inserting quotes, humorous anecdotes and insight on how each photograph came into being. He also prefaces the book with a smart essay that delves into his early years, his theories as a photographer and how he feels artists should operate in a constantly changing climate.

Overall, “On The Road With Texas Highways: A Tribute To True Texas” is a fascinating look behind the lens with a photographer who truly understands that passion is a necessity in this industry. His style is undeniably quirky and there’s a humor in his work that will entertain avid photographers and the complete novice alike.

At a time when photographs barrage us at a fast and furious rate, Smith’s work asks us to slow down and enjoy the intricacies of a state that’s obviously near and dear to his heart.

“On The Road With Texas Highways: A Tribute To True Texas” is available through Texas A&M University Press at www.tamupress.com. Because Smith hung his exhibit here in Huntsville earlier this year, there are likely books available at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum’s gift shop.