Capturing Texas history, 1 photo at a time
Photographer crisscrosses Texas to capture state's wildlife, history in frames
BENJAMIN, Texas (AP) — It's the first day of spring, but winter still grips The Big Empty, a West Texas expanse of board-flat plains, ocher bluffs and skies of sizzling blue. On a barren knob in the Knoco Badlands about 80 miles north of Abilene hunkers a solitary man, armored against the elements in thick jacket, knit cap and laced boots that reach halfway up his shins. Around his neck hangs an array of wooden whistles, each the size of a half-smoked cigar.
He raises one to his lips, and out comes the piercing cry of a rabbit in distress.
Wyman Meinzer lowers the whistle and scans the horizon. He's calling coyotes, but none responds.
If he feels disappointment, he conceals it. Meinzer is a patient man. He has spent decades of his 62 years mastering the art of unobtrusiveness. To be a successful wildlife photographer — and Meinzer is one of the best — it's important to put one's subjects at ease.
Through his lens: Meet the Lone Star State's official photographer and see his work
Since 1978, Meinzer's photos of animals, man and nature have appeared in National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Texas Monthly and a host of publications around the world. His first book, on roadrunners, took him 14 years. By the time it was done, he could cradle the wild birds in his hands.
Since then, he has produced 23 other books dealing with everything from ranch life to Texas rivers. In 1997, the Legislature named him official state photographer — an honorific essentially designating him as Texas' poet laureate of the lens. In May, two of his photos, 13-by-30-foot prints, will go on permanent display at the newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
"I can always spot his work, the way he creates light and shadow, the technique and composition," says David Baxter, former editor of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. "I think Wyman was a buffalo hunter in another life, he knows the country so intimately."
From his western twang to the unruly locks spilling over his collar, Meinzer exudes cowboy nonchalance. The son of a Benjamin-area ranch foreman, he holds a wildlife biology degree from Texas Tech University. He and his wife, Sylinda, live in a sprawling ranch-style home next to the 1887 Knox County Jail, which the couple restored as a guest house. The decor in both veers toward animal skins, skulls and traps.
Though acclaimed for his camera work, Meinzer's first post-college job was shooting animals with a rifle. Ranchers paid him $15 for every coyote or bobcat pelt. The real pay, he says, was the chance to interact with nature.
"There were few jobs available for biologists," he recalls. ". I decided to become a predator hunter, not because I hated them, but because I found them intriguing. . I love predators. I even like rattlesnakes. I just don't want them in the house."
Meinzer decided to move to the hills, where he'd devote an entire winter to hunting. He ended up spending five winters, usually with only traps and firearms for company.
A large black and white photo from those years adorns Meinzer's living room. In it, he poses as a bearded backwoodsman outside his "half-dugout" camp house, its walls hidden behind animal skins. The cabin lacked electricity and running water, and on cold winter mornings, Meinzer often awoke to find the dishes he had washed the previous night frozen together.
"It was one of the most significant experiences of my formative years," he says. "Out there you were on your own. . There were no people to tell you to get up and go to work. You just as easily could lay in bed. . But to pay off my college loan and pay off my pickup, I had to produce."
Meinzer met his financial obligations, wrote in his journal, observed nature and reflected.
"There was so much time to think . a lot of self-evaluation," he says.
Meinzer dabbled with photography as a boy and used a borrowed camera to document his wildlife research in college. It was during those first post-college years, however, that he began to scrutinize wildlife photography in magazines and wonder if he could do it better. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the self-taught lensman began to send his pictures to magazines — and to amass a pile of rejections.
Meinzer applied hunting skills to photography. "Every animal, whether four-legged or two-legged, has a pattern," he says. "You pick out the trail where you know they'll be coming down, set and bait the trap and you get them."
His first sale came in 1978. Then his career boomed. In March 1981, his images graced the covers of three national magazines. Meinzer expanded his working range to the American West, Alaska and beyond.
"The light guides me to every location," he says "Light is color. Light is excitement. Light is life."
The photographer particularly is drawn to the majestic West Texas sky and its iridescent clouds after a storm. "It's almost like a nuclear explosion with the vivid reds, purples and oranges."
A lanky man who moves with easy grace, Meinzer deftly navigates his rural world and the demands of his city-based career. "It's almost like speaking two languages," he says.
An avid hunter who dispassionately describes trapping and killing, Meinzer harbors a deep love for animals and often greets a pet cat with a kiss between the ears.
Among friends, he is known for an offbeat sense of humor.
Traditionally, says Carole Young, his former editor at Texas Tech University Press, authors would treat their editors to chocolates or flowers on publication day. When the roadrunner book came out, Meinzer gave Young an albino rattlesnake. "I had a biology background, too," she says. "I was thoroughly charmed."
On another occasion, Meinzer surprised Benjamin townsfolk by landing a single-engine airplane on the Knox County village's main street and taxiing it through town.
Such hijinks aside, he worked hard to perfect his craft, adding humans to his roster of subjects.
In North Texas he found denizens of a bar who competed at swatting flies, the least successful swatter buying the drinks. In East Texas, he discovered raccoon hunters and an old man who festooned his house with squirrel tails to ward off evil spells. In 1995, Meinzer published a book of photos on the 6666 Ranch, a producer of quarterhorses and black Angus cattle in Guthrie.
For Texas Parks and Wildlife, he crisscrossed Texas to chronicle its "vanishing heritage."
"From the prairies to the mountains, rivers to sky, in a two-month span I photographed in each corner of the state," he says. With John Graves, the famed author of "Goodbye to a River," the story of the naturalist's canoe trip down the imperiled Brazos River, Meinzer chronicled six Texas waterways and the people whose lives were reliant on them. For that project he shot 20,000 images.
From boyhood, Meinzer has been struck by the uniqueness of his West Texas home.
Memories of those times flow nonstop as he leads visitors on a pickup tour of the 27,000-acre ranch where he grew up. He points to rattlesnake dens and muses over a sun-bleached cow skull. "It just screams 'ragged land and hard times.'?"
Then, gliding to a stop on the sheer bluffs overlooking the Brazos, he remembers how the quicksand-filled, nearly dry river mesmerized him as a boy.
"At night I would lay awake — the windows would be open and the curtains blowing — and listen to the sounds of that river after a rain," he says. "That river would be roaring. The old Germans around here would call it the 'roaring lion.'?"
Meinzer steps from the truck as the river glistens to the horizon in the morning sun.
"You come out here on a fall morning with the fog and the sun is just coming up on that far end of the river," he says, drawing a deep breath. "Ooooh boy!"
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.