Two decades later, photographer James Evans revisits his book ‘Big Bend Pictures’

Evans has released a 20th anniversary edition of his seminal book, which documented life in the Big Bend during the 1990s and early 2000s.

By Mitch Borden, Marfa Public RadioApril 1, 2024 10:45 am, ,

From Marfa Public Radio:

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After years of wandering across the region, photographer James Evans published “Big Bend Pictures” in 2003. The large collection of black-and-white prints captured the vastness of Far West Texas and the grit of the people that call it home.

Now, over 20 years later, Evans has released a new edition of the book with some new additions and a new design.

Sitting in his studio, leafing through a copy, it seems like Evans is reuniting with old friends. For instance, one photo of a woman whose knees had to be stitched up after a surgery.

“Shirley had the Burnt Biscuit cafe here. She ran it for years,” he explained. “She had just had her knees replaced. She said I was crazy.”

Pointing to another photo of an older couple dancing, “This is Hallie dancing with her son and this is literally the last time she danced. She was old and went into a nursing home not long after that.”

James Evans sits in his studio in Marathon, Texas.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

The faces staring up from the pages of his book are people who’ve shaped the region in one way or another. One portrait that Evans was especially proud of is a photo of Big Bend National Park’s first superintendent Ross Maxwell. He photographed a close-up of Maxwell in a dark room — the glow from a match is the only thing illuminating his face.

“I was so intimidated by him and I’d ask him questions, but he was so reluctant to talk and he lit that pipe and I asked him to draw on it a few times. I shot about four frames,” Evans said.

Before moving to the Big Bend in 1988, Evans had previously worked in Austin as a photographer, but when he visited West Texas he was immediately taken by the desert and the people.

Evans said, “The book is really more about the type of person that lives here, no one was recording that. I had seen pretty picture books, you know heavy-saturated color, for tourists and I didn’t want to do a book like that, that’s not the type of work I wanted to do.”

So, he started documenting locals — shooting on black-and-white film.

Over two decades after his original version of “Big Bend Pictures” was published, Evans says he’s been able to improve his work with the new edition. The images have deeper tones, the crop of the photos are just right, and Evans has added a few new ones.

Evans didn’t consider himself a landscape photographer when he first moved to the Big Bend so he mostly focused on making portraits.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

“I was really trying to make honest portraits of people not to make people icons or anything, but just trying to make who I thought that person was and that’s what a portrait photographer does,” he said.

Evans went beyond photographing people to show the character of the region. He captured a lightning strike near a surveillance blimp outside of Marfa, a tarantula crawling across a table cloth, as well as sweeping landscapes.

“What I get out of the image and what other people get out of the image are totally different. I have a really terrible memory for the most part, but with my photographs I can remember. I can remember how I felt and what I was thinking,” he said. “I feel like what I captured is fleeting and is actually gone.”

A lot has changed since Evans first moved to Marathon. Today, a record-number of tourists flock to the area, filling the region’s dusty towns. And even though Evans misses the quieter days of the past, his love for the Big Bend has not faded.

After all, it’s the place he found his calling.

“I was always searching for what would be my life’s work and so I just knew once I was here that this was it,” Evans said.

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