When I first arrived in Austin in the spring of 2003, I was already prepared for the cavalier energy that made this town unique. During my first visit a year earlier, I sensed a “beachtown” like atmosphere and a seemingly lenient sign code that announced a helter-skelter collection of small independent businesses along the local streets. The stores and the folks that ran them were unique! At the heart of this local commerce was a quirky, counter culture spirit with an open invitation that freely granted freedom to be whatever you wanted to be, no questions asked. This permissiveness seemed a rather odd environment to me. Austin is after all, the capital of Texas which is one of the most politically conservative states in the union.
Most would probably agree that the roughly 51,000 students attending the University of Texas certainly contribute to this liberal atmosphere. It is however, the quirky, sideways, live and let live attitude that has made Austin an icon of weirdness since the 60s.
The battle cry, “Keep Austin Weird”, was actually coined in 2000. Card carrying Austinites worried that much of the growth happening in Austin would destroy their unique lifestyle and/or replace many of the unique businesses that are the spice of this community. What seems to be born out however, is a decade and a half later, that Austin has still retained it's weird ways.
There are for example over 1,000 food carts and trailers occupying several courtyards in and around the downtown Austin district. Vegan, vegetarian, and barbeque as well as exotic cuisine is served up and enjoyed in an outdoor setting. Customers enjoy their meal on picnic tables under shade from umbrellas that are in the courtyards. One might find stir fried alligator in peanut sauce on the menu for example, at a food trailer featuring Thai cuisine.
Austin boasts being the “live music capital of the world”. Musicians of all stripes are appreciated and entertain in bars such as the Continental Club that is 50 years old and going strong. This bar is legendary and in its day has seen the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many other notable performers. In another part of town at a boot scootin’ honkytonk called The Broken Spoke, they pack in a country western crowd on any given night of the week.
Artist’s thrive in this creative atmosphere that encourages “anything goes”. Stunning murals and some formal graffiti are supported by the city in conjunction with local businesses. They beautify the sides of many downtown buildings and restaurants. You can see an armadillo created from welded steel crawling up over a flower planter on the patio of an eaterie or a six foot guitar sculpture in front of a bank building on Congress Street.
Austin celebrates its funky, quirky attitude and lifestyle and is very tolerant and accepting. It allows this very diverse culture the freedom to be. This is, I suggest, what will continue to “Keep Austin Weird”.
In these four photo essays, I offer my contemporary imagery of a distinct vision that is Austin. In a conversation about the photographic experience here, a friend of mine aptly called Austin “a target rich environment”. In my opinion, that is an understatement. It is an exciting time to be a photographer in Austin, Texas!
It was sometime in the early years of the new millennium that downtown Austin began to change. Other than the state Capitol grounds and a few other landmarks, i.e., the historic Driscoll hotel, certain well-known Tex-Mex eateries and blues clubs, there wasn’t a lot going on in this part of town. Change however was in the wind.
Over the next half a dozen years, Austin was to see a surge in tech companies moving to this part of central Texas. The downtown area was cleaned up and transformed to provide amenities for people moving into new vertical neighborhoods. Whole Foods made downtown its main headquarters and shopping and dining districts followed. This precipitated the first wave of condominium towers springing up in the downtown area. After a brief slowdown in building around 2010 a second wave of construction began. The skyline was accented with giant cranes on the locations of several once vacant lots that had their tired old structures removed to make way for the new.
This is the current wave of development that Austin is presently experiencing. One such project just recently started is called the Independent. The structure is to top out at 58 stories and it’s touted that it will be the tallest condominium high rise West of the Mississippi. Austin is built on limestone bedrock which makes these kinds of structures possible.
What makes downtown Austin photo friendly is the opportunity to record the light at different times of the day as it bounces off one tall building and then reflected onto another. The streets can be somewhat narrow which harnesses the shadow and light and amplifies the effect. Older structures from past decades that have survived, readily mix with the newer 21st Century architecture. In the midst of all this are the people, whether they are tourists or locals, mixing and enjoying the lively downtown atmosphere. It appears that this Renaissance and rebirth of Austin’s downtown district shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
It was sometime before 2011 that a building project was halted in Austin’s Castle Hill district. Four levels of condominiums envisioned to rise up the side of a hill had to be abandoned. Left on the site were the concrete foundation skeletons of this stagnant project, never completed. What did happen shortly thereafter was the rise of an outdoor venue called the “graffiti wall” or more formally, Hope Park. In the spirit of Keeping Austin Weird, developers generously allowed local street artists, muralists and creators of graffiti to use the site to express and create on the abandoned concrete walls. Since then, tens of thousands of aerosol cans and layer upon layer of spray paint later, this community paint park is a living artistic expression that is constantly changing.
Every square inch of surface area has become a canvas for serious muralists as well as doodlers alike. Artists understand that their efforts might well be covered over the next day by another artists creation. The unwritten code, “don't paint over unless yours is better”, is very loosely interpreted! The space has essentially become an open air mic for spray painting and an unexpected mecca for street artists from all around the world. The levels of creativity expressed here is quite amazing. Some of the larger murals rival the best seen anywhere in the world.
It's easy to bemoan the overpainting of some of these works of art with a casual doodle expressing ones undying love for the person they just spent the night with or a strongly worded statement about current political tidings. That's all a part of the spice and flavor of this unique artistic happening and certainly contributes to keeping Austin weird.
The Lone Star RoundUp
The Lone Star Roundup is a massive outdoor car show held in Austin, Texas on the first weekend in April. The Roundup has been an annual event for the past 15 years and registers over 2,000 car entries. The show includes custom restored hot rods and vintage autos all of which are pre-1963 and American made. The level of artistry, craftsmanship and attention to detail in these restorations is truly inspiring. Many, but not all participants in the show are of an older generation who celebrate and reminisce about a time past. This fantastic display of restorations reminds us of the American symbol of freedom, as demonstrated by these classic automobiles.
I've never been a fan of custom cars or auto nostalgia of any kind. It's just not my thing. However, what I do appreciate is the opportunity that the show affords in making contemporary and minimal imagery. I remarked to a friend that I haven't taken many images of hot rods but I have collected many minimals of polished metal, reflections, rust and chrome. Row after row of these works of art are on display and provide an outrageous opportunity for photographs.
This show is a rich photographic gem. Mix it up with a bit of rock'n roll, food trailer barbeque and the fierce pride and independence that Texans have about their lifestyle and their cars and you have the formula for great photo opportunities.
South by Southwest or the acronym SXSW as it has come to be called, is held mid-March every year in Austin, Texas. The venue’s inception was created in 1987 and is now one of the largest music, film and interactive events in the world. This years event drew an international audience of over 150,000 artists, promoters, and lovers of music and film to connect and share ideas. In addition to films being debuted at the historic Paramount Theater, concerts were held at other performance venues and every bar in town hosted a continual lineup of musical groups looking to be seen and/or discovered.
In downtown Austin there are about five blocks of the Sixth Street district where the majority of small clubs are located. The city cordons off the area to normal traffic for this ten day event. Every afternoon and into the evening, people young and old converge, mix and enjoy the music and each other. There is nothing quite like being in this parade of people as the driving beat and thunder of different bands hits you from all sides! This is an opportunity for street photography at its’ best. The diversity of faces, especially of those in their 20s and younger, reveals to my eye a mixing of cultures, as ethnic people have been integrating over the past 50 years. The visual result is faces of exceptional beauty and appeal.
SXSW is not only a showcase for music but also a rendezvous of a young culture whose physical features are blending. I suspect that this is evidence of a global transformation in a world having grown smaller and less isolated over time. I particularly notice this phenomenon in monochromatic photographic imagery.
All images © Timothy Sens Photography
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