Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph RanchA Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
7.8.2018 Austin photographer and blogger Bronson Dorsey finds success with Lost, Texas
For the last eight years Bronson Dorsey has driven thousands of Texas miles chronicling sites on the verge of collapsing. He had one goal: that his photographs would generate greater appreciation of our cultural and architectural heritage and encourage further preservation efforts around the state. His book, photographs and travels cover the whole state. We caught up with him via email to discover how he went and how he chose his locales, for today’s Lone Star Listens.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where were you born and where did you grow up, Bronson, and how would you describe those days?
BRONSON DORSEY: I was born in Bay City, Texas, and lived in oil company housing and small towns in southeast Texas until age 8. My dad was a petroleum engineer which meant living close to the oil patch. The late 1940s and early ’50s were blissful for a kid even though we moved frequently. My paternal grandparents lived in Port Arthur and maternal grandparents in Dallas. Vacations and holidays were usually spent in one of the two cities.
So we took lots of car trips, which I loved because my dad usually designated me as his “navigator” and I got to sit in the front seat — which was more enjoyable is hard to say. I would unfold the Humble Oil Company map and trace our course on the blue and red lines, announcing each town before we arrived. We drove through towns with evocative names like Palestine, Corsicana, and Waxahachie. Driving in town at a slow speed gave me time to experience the towns more closely and when we stopped for gas or a bite to eat we visited with people who lived there.
Unbeknownst to me, my love of road trips and fascination with small towns began with family travel as a child.
I understand that you are a retired architect and architectural photographer. What drew you to those career choices?
Interestingly enough, my interest in architecture and construction began during the same time period — age 7 or 8 — when I saw my first set of blueprints, for company housing being built by my dad’s employer. The Encyclopedia Britannica also offered me examples of building design by world-famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen. I was captivated by what I saw. I can also credit my father with my early interest in photography. It became a hobby that I pursued through college, time in the military, and into adulthood. Professional photography started about the same time as my pursuit of Lost, Texas.
Tell us about Lost, Texas. How did you get the inspiration for the book? How many years’ worth of your work is showcased here?
The initial impetus for Lost, Texas came in 2009. I was driving east on US Highway 90, returning from a photographic trip to Big Bend Ranch State Park. As I was passing the turnoff for Langtry, I saw three derelict buildings in my peripheral vision. I spent over an hour crawling in and around the three buildings—my camera busily capturing the scenes. As I continued my trip home, I kept thinking about how many times I had passed abandoned buildings along highways and the streets of rural towns without giving them a thought, much less a second glance. I wondered how many places like the one near Langtry were there around the state. Hundreds? More?
I started looking for abandoned buildings to photograph, with the only criteria being they had to be visually interesting. My primary motivation was to create compelling images. A book was the farthest thing from my mind when I started. And yet here we are, nine years and thousands of miles of highways later.
What was the creative process like for creating the book? How did you decide which locations to photograph? Finally, where does the title come from?
Arthur Meyerson — an internationally known commercial photographer from Houston — planted the seed in my mind in 2009 during a workshop he conducted. But the thought of creating a book, while tantalizing, seemed so formidable that I shelved the idea for several years. In 2011 I decided to start a blog to showcase the photographs to see if there was any interest the subject. I included a couple of paragraphs of information about the towns that I found on the Texas State Historical Association’s online Handbook of Texas. Grasping for a name for the blog, it occurred to me that most of the buildings I had photographed were in the process of vanishing and that once that happened the hopes, dreams and hard work they represented would be lost to us. So I decided to entitle my blog “Lost Texas” and threw in the comma as a tongue-in-cheek afterthought.
Now you can add “book author” to your resume! When did you decide to create a book of your work, and what was that process like?
By 2016 I had almost one hundred posts on the blog and another fifty waiting to be published. With readership growing, I decided that it was time to look for a book publisher. Fortunately, a friend recommended Texas A&M Press and suggested who I should contact. Thom Lemmons, senior editor at TAMU Press, saw promise in my concept and encouraged me to submit a manuscript and photographs for their consideration.
I had no idea what was in store. Once A&M Press accepted my submission, the real work began. Since they’re an academic publisher, their process of peer review is rigorous. They challenged me to refine the stories I was trying to tell, not only with my photographs, but in my narrative as well. Daunting as the process was, I became a better writer. The designers at A&M Press were quick to grasp my visual concept of the book and deserve credit for a beautifully designed and produced product. I also have to say that the marketing team at A&M Press has been wonderful to work with. They really know how to support an author.
Can you tell us about some of your most favorite places/photographs in the book?
Schools across the state have been some of my favorite subjects because they (along with churches) were two of the first structures built when towns were created and frequently the last two structures standing when towns declined. The Catarina School was one of the most delightful surprises when I found it, because I wasn’t sure it still existed. Plus, it has retained a lot of its original beauty. The school in Mosheim is a favorite and could disappear soon if it isn’t stabilized. The most difficult building to find was the Aldridge Sawmill in the Angelina National Forest. It took two separate hikes into the dense piney woods to locate it and the effort was well worth it. The old graffiti-covered concrete structures were hauntingly beautiful.
Are there other Texas photographers whose work you admire? Are there books similar to yours that you drew inspiration from?
Two Texas photographers have influenced me greatly and I consider both of them friends. Arthur Meyerson, a masterful color photographer whose workshops I attended, has been a mentor and inspiration since 2009. His books, The Color of Light and The Journey, showcase his talent. Rick Patrick, a talented Austin-based commercial photographer, has been a someone I turned to frequently for technical advice in both shooting and processing my images.
T. Lindsay Baker’s books — Ghost Towns of Texas and More Ghost Towns of Texas — chronicled the history of hundreds of towns across the state and became one of my go-to sources for information. The late Drury Blakeley Alexander, one of my architectural professors, co-authored Texas Homes of the 19th Century. Blake was influential as a professor of architectural history, particularly the history of architecture in Texas.
What advice do you have for amateur photographers who like to photograph buildings?
If you want to find old buildings, hop in your car and drive as many farm-to-market roads as you can. There are hundreds of buildings out there just waiting to be photographed. Take the time to let a building reveal itself to you. Shoot as many images as you can. You’ll learn as much from the bad images as you will the good ones.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
The book was only released in May, so I’m busy promoting it right now. However, I continue to look for and photograph interesting buildings. If Lost, Texas turns out to be successful, I might consider other venues for my photographs.
What’s on your own nightstand to be read?
I recently finished Austinite Bryan Mealer’s The Kings of Big Spring, a wonderful recounting of his family’s lives in Texas over multiple generations. I’m starting C. F. Yetman’s new novel, What Is Forgiven — her follow-up to The Roses Underneath. She’s also an Austin author. And, I’m reading A Walk Across Texas by Jon McConal on my iPad as well.
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Praise for Bronson Dorsey’s LOST, TEXAS
“Unlike most of us who don’t bother to slow down when passing by these decaying facilities, Dorsey not only took the time to stop and photograph them but also to put them in historical context.” —Glenn Dromgoole, “Texas Reads”
“His photography is stunning. Readers make an extended road trip through Texas exploring forgotten places, buildings and towns. The trip takes readers around the state visiting east, south, central, north and west Texas and the Panhandle.” —Galveston Daily News
“Lost, Texas offers a glimpse of fading small towns.” —Texas Monthly
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