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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Walker Pickering

About a year ago, my friend Polly Chandler introduced me to the work of her good friend Walker Pickering. I was instantly taken by his imagery and continued to keep track of his work. Two weeks ago, I was thrilled to meet Walker in person when he and his students attended my talk at TWU. And when I returned home from Texas and opened my mail, I was ecstatic to see Walker’s gorgeous image Camaro (above) on the cover of the 2012 Houston Center of Photography Auction catalog…an image which I am absolutely crazy about. 

This past week, Walker was kind enough to chat with me about his work. Here’s an excerpt from that chat.


SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

WALKER PICKERING: I experimented a lot with video in high school. There was never an attempt at anything close to art making, but I started realizing I was strongly attracted to image capture. In college I was a music education major for awhile, but as my passion for that waned I found myself taking lots of pictures with a digital camera that captured directly to a floppy disk. I started with digital photography and worked backwards. I eventually found myself in an introductory black and white darkroom class, and the moment I saw a print appear in the developer for the first time, I was hooked.

SB: You teach full time and you are also a fine art photographer. Can you tell me a bit about how you keep the balance and inspiration flowing?

WP: I started teaching at McHenry County College outside Chicago immediately after grad school, and I’ve spent the past three years at The Art Institute of Austin. My teaching schedule keeps me busy year-round because we’re on a quarter system that goes through the summer. I get about 8 weeks off a year, but only two of the breaks are long enough to travel. It’s during those breaks that I make the majority of my work, although I still manage to shoot when school’s in session. I find it difficult to create work locally—at least with regards to Nearly West—so getting out on the road with no particular destination in mind keeps me stimulated creatively.

SB: What was the impetus for your series Nearly West? 

WP: My thesis project in grad school was called Abundant Living, and part of it had to do with my wife as muse. I was referencing Callahan, Nixon and others, but my heart really wasn’t in the work. I later realized that I was making what I thought was “grad school work”. My problem was that I was creating the work and critically analyzing it simultaneously—two important processes that I think should be attempted separately.

When I moved to Chicago, I started wandering around the South Side and traveling around the lake to Indiana and Michigan. I had no real goal in mind, but I realized that I simply wanted to explore unfamiliar places, and the road trip was the perfect vehicle for that. Returning to Austin forced me to take longer trips because I was already so familiar with Central Texas.

SB: Can you talk a bit about the locations you visited and photographed? Were the locations preplanned or happened upon?

WP: Most of the images were made around West Texas and throughout the American South. There are some oddballs in there from California and the Midwest as well. I generally plan my trips as little as possible. I rely almost entirely upon serendipity. This usually works out, but I’ve taken some particularly poor routes. In December 2011, my wife and I took a trip to New Orleans. After leaving the city, we drove along the gulf coast and up into Mississippi. I’m sure it was the time of year more than anything, but I found next to nothing to photograph. The same thing happened one time in Tennessee, where I decided to take backroads between Memphis and Atlanta. It just turned out to be completely lacking in what I was looking for visually. I still love shooting in Tennessee and Mississippi though.

SB: Can you tell me a bit about the technical aspects of this work?

WP: With rare exception, everything was shot with a Hasselblad and Kodak Portra films. I used to shoot a lot of large format, but even though I liked how it slowed me down and helped me concentrate on each shot, I found I was missing a lot of photos that I’d otherwise shoot with a slightly quicker format. The Hasselblad was the perfect balance between quality and speed.


SB: Is there one image in Nearly West you are most proud of or perhaps one that embodies the complete spirit and intent of your imagery?

WP: Meal is in my top ten, and I think it best represents the series. It was taken in 2009 at a Dairy Queen in Midland, Texas. I don’t even care for the food at that chain all that much, but it’s a staple of my road trips whenever available. Plus, I’ve gone there since I was a kid so it has a certain nostalgia for me. Interestingly enough, I don’t think everyone realizes it’s a Dairy Queen, but I’m fine with that bit of ambiguity.

SB: You shot a powerful series of portraits of a former colleague named Joe K. Can you tell me a bit about that work and what sparked the series?

Joe had worked at the Texas House of Representatives for as long as I’d been alive at that time. He spent the majority of that time as a runner for the photography department, and when I began working there in 2004 we quickly became friends. I liked him immediately because he was hilarious. After getting used to his manner of speaking, I realized most things he said were wisecracks.

In fact, the first time I understood how funny he was, we were walking down a long hallway in the Capitol. The Representatives and Senators all have a tendency to hire very attractive female college students to work for them, and Joe was a fan of all the pretty ladies. A pair of girls walked past us and Joe quipped to me, “Them two is wildcats. They look gooood.”

I only worked for the state for a year, and during that time it became clear that Joe was developing Alzheimer’s disease. He was forced to retire and I wanted to create a set of photographs about that time. I left Texas soon after and I never saw Joe again. He passed away right after I returned to Texas.

SB: What are you working on now?

WP: I still consider Nearly West a work-in-progress, but I’ve started work on a series that has to do with music, but is quite a bit different from an earlier series of portraits of musicians I did in 2003. It’s in the earliest stages and will probably take several years to complete.

SB: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or events?

I have an image in the Houston Center for Photography Auction next week, which I’d love to promote because HCP has been so good to me over the past year. Their entire staff, along with the folks at Fotofest, are incredible and Texas is lucky to have both organizations.


To see more of Walkers work, pop over to his website

  1. susanburnstine posted this
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