Monday Blog Blog: Derrick Birdsall of My Sight Picture Lands A Book Deal To Photograph North Texas Frontier Forts And Lives For A Week In A Historical Log Cabin
(See the photograph large here.)
What in the world is Monday Blog Blog? See the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog Celebration.”
Some photographers have no problem with singing their own praises or even over-blowing the merit of their own work. In contrast, many photographers and other creative people hesitate to promote themselves because either they doubt their own work, feel self-aggrandizement is tacky or any number of other reasons. My father, pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde, fit into the second category and architectural, historical, street and landscape photographer Derrick Birdsall does as well.
When I proposed doing a Monday Blog Blog on Derrick Birdsall and his popular blog My Sight Picture, he said something about the caliber of photographers I feature, how short a time he had been “serious” about photography and that he felt highly honored to be the subject of such a blog post. My reply was that my father liked to support and encourage those who were the most dedicated to the craft and the most accelerated in their development. Besides, Dad was always egalitarian in his association with all levels of photographers. I added that even though Landscape Photography Blogger exists to honor my father, it is my blog, doggon it, and I will feature who I want, which essentially in time will be a wide variety of landscape photographers from all over the world that I haven’t even met yet, but to start with I will feature those who I like and who support this blog the most.
Derrick Birdsall began his participation on this blog by asking in a comment if I thought that the current period was another Golden Era for photography. See comments on the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 2.” Ever since, he has shown a knack for asking pithy, discussion sparking and often difficult questions. I have always been amazed at his prolific volume of photography. This month, for example, he made over 20,000 exposures. Also, he puts up blog posts more frequently than any other blog I follow.
Just five years ago, Derrick Birdsall began photographing with a small Hewlett Packard “point-and-shoot” that came with a printer he bought. Because it was convenient to keep in his pocket, he took it everywhere he went. At first he had mainly an “I was here” style, but once he was out exploring around the Gila River in New Mexico and a storm blew across the canyon. Derrick “snapped” a few pictures and found that one of them had an “Ansel Adams style to it and something just clicked in my head, that I could do this.” He now photographs mainly with his Canon 7D, with his earlier Canon 50D as a backup. For post processing, he uses only Adobe Lightroom and Idealab/Google Picasa, no Photoshop.
Right away Derrick made an impression on me with his polite, Southern manner sprinkled with “please” and “thank you, Sir.” He was born in Virginia and has lived in Texas since the 4th Grade. His distinct photography in some ways is best exemplified by his photographs from his visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rather than going for the landmarks: the adobe, Native Americans on the Plaza, or other typical Santa Fe clichés, his images on Smug Mug are of the land and not even of the most prominent features. He explained that this was partially circumstantial as he had attended a museum conference, took a walk and photographed what looked good to him. “A lot of times we miss something right under our noses because we’re too busy trying to put tripods where someone else already has. Part of my uniqueness is that growing up, I never spent much time looking at, or learning about art or photography. Even now, I don’t look to others’ photographs to guide what I do.”
He photographs landscapes, motorcycles, shooting competitions, airplanes, animals, architecture and many other subjects. Here’s his explanation for wide variety over specialization:
If I had my druthers, I’d be out working the Texas deserts and canyons every day with a camera. Unfortunately for me, I can’t get out there all the time, so I take images of what I have access to. There’s beauty to be found everywhere—whether that’s in a majestic desert landscape, a nice macro that you walk by every day, your dog laying out in the sun, or whatever you might pass by. My rule number one is that to take a good picture, you’ve got to have your camera with you everywhere you go. That way if you see something that catches your eye, you can take the time to stop and capture that moment. That being said, I think that to really capture the essence of something, you have to know it, and the images I share with folks are of things I know and love. Basically, it’s all about ‘seeing.’ Once you start hunting for the light, you see it everywhere you go. I also use every photo opportunity as a way to become more skilled with the camera across the board. For example, I can learn something from taking an image of a hot rod and apply it to capturing reflections of a pool of water in the desert. In the short time I’ve been working at this, I’ve learned that photography is often about trial and error. Every time you hit the shutter button it’s a learning experience. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the more images you take, the better you get at being able to bend the camera to your will so that you can capture the image you visualized.
The big news recently was a book deal with TSTC Publishing for a coffee table book featuring Derrick Birdsall’s photographs of the Texas Frontier Forts. Derrick Birdsall has a background in history and has been photographing the Texas Frontier Forts seriously since 2009. He earned an MA in History from Sam Houston State University and since then has been working in museums for over 20 years. He learned from a competitive shooting mentor that if you want to succeed, “you have to let other people know what your goals are and they will help you reach your goals.” Derrick Birdsall has had the goal to produce a coffee table book on the Texas Frontier Forts for some time. At one point, he collaborated with Margaret Hoogstra, who manages a cultural tourism trail centered on the Texas Frontier Forts called Texas Forts Trail. She was at a meeting with a representative from TSTC Publishing and they started talking about potential book projects. Margaret Hoogstra mentioned Derrick Birdsall’s photography of the forts. Subsequently the publisher set up a meeting in which they agreed to do the book. Derrick called it a “networking success.”
The forts project hits so many buttons for me. For starters, I am a historian by trade… I love history, always have. Secondly, the bulk of the forts are well off the beaten path and in some truly beautiful country. Thirdly, they are some of the only places you can get to anymore where you can not only see things the way they were, but you can feel it too. Standing inside some of the old buildings and hearing the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls without the interruption of modern noises is just magical to me… I can get my history fix and my landscape fix in the same breath.
The city of Farmer’s Branch, Texas has a historical city park with 28 acres of grounds and 12 structures dating from the 1840s to the 1930s. Derrick Birdsall, park Superintendent for 12 years, slept in one of the log cabins for a week this last March in commemoration of Farmer’s Branch Historical Park’s 25th Anniversary. The Dallas Morning News article shared how Superintendent Birdsall wore period clothing and cooked over an open fire to help bring frontier days to life. See the YouTube video here. The Farmer’s Branch Historical Park, with over 80,000 visitor’s a year, is an outdoor museum, special event venue and educational facility sharing the heritage of North Texas and Dallas County.
I enjoy being able to teach people… and there are definitely perks associated with the museum world. From time to time I can flash my “museum card” and get access to places that I otherwise would not have…. My museum is… not your usual gallery type setting. One of the things that just flat drives me nuts is that quite a few of the folks who work in a gallery setting are elitist snobs. It’s my belief that the objects in our care are to be shared with as many folks as possible and that visitors should have reasonable access to the artifacts. A lot of the gallery types keep everything behind glass if it’s accessible at all and more often than not you can’t even see the items because they are hiding back in the stacks. How can you educate and teach your visitors if all of your tools are locked up behind closed doors? The other thing that I notice about some folks in more traditional types of museums is that while they are often times highly educated, they only know what they’ve read, and not because they have any experience in their subject matter. Those are the folks that talk about the rules in art and photography but if you put a paintbrush or camera in their hands they wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to use it.
When Derrick Birdsall studied museums, he attended graduate school. When he learned competition shooting, he took classes from the best marksmen in the world (See a YouTube video of the “Three Gun” type of shooting he does here). However, with photography he has been largely self-taught. He took one class online with master landscape photographer William Neill, but the rest of his training has been through trial and error in the field. He chooses photographs and guides his photography with the help of pre-visualization. In shooting competition, he made a sight picture, aligning the front and rear sight of his gun with the target. He also learned to fire between breaths, during what is called the respiratory pause. He sometimes uses this technique while photographing. As a result of his training, he can often defy the rules about when a tripod is necessary. He wrote about the parallels between both types of “shooting” in an excellent blog post appropriately called, “Sight Picture,” similar to the name of his highly visited blog My Sight Picture. Take a sight along his photo blog for yourself. You will see the work of a new voice in photography, traveling at a high velocity toward his target.