“Keep Austin Weird” is an appropriate slogan for the capital of Texas. As a photographer, I love weird places; they always have something interesting to photograph. But before going to Austin, I asked people who knew the town for their suggestions for great photo subjects.
At the top was the Broken Spoke, one of the last real Texas honky-tonk dance halls; back in the 1960s, when Willie Nelson was a clean-shaven crooner, he sang there—and still returns periodically. When I learned that Broken Spoke owner James White loves to have his picture taken, I called and asked if he would pose at twilight in front of “the Spoke.” “What time?” he answered enthusiastically. “I’ll dress up for you and bring my 1954 Cadillac.”
We met at twilight, Mr. White sporting a great smile. But I couldn’t seem to break through the imaginary wall that can spring up between a photographer and his subject. I kept taking pictures from different angles, and they were nice, but I wanted something more. So I tried a different tack: I asked him to circle the Cadillac. As he came around, he paused by the car’s taillight and looked down in contemplation. That’s when I got this reflective moment.
Next on my list was a great shot of a musician, Austin being the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World. I’d been listening to Austin’s latest up-and-coming singer-songwriter, Shakey Graves, for months and hoped I’d be able to track him down. An email exchange with his publicist yielded a phone number, and Shakey and I arranged to meet that very night in a practice room that, I would discover to my dismay, was dark as a cave, completely lined with black fabric. “What am I supposed to do now?” I wondered silently as I looked for a light switch. The only sources of illumination or color were chili-pepper lights and a Texas flag pinned to the wall. Realizing I’d need to improvise, I had Shakey stand in front of the flag with his old-school microphone, then looked for whatever I could find in the way of lighting. Noticing a bare light-bulb fixture resting on the floor, I taped it to a microphone stand. Then I saw a desk lamp, which I switched on and placed on the floor, angling it up at Shakey to fill in the shadows a little. The stage set (and breathing a sigh of relief), I asked Shakey to sing, and I snapped away. We both loved the result.
A final stop was Franklin Barbecue, considered by some to be the best barbecue restaurant in America. Arriving at 8 a.m., I found people standing in line and sitting in lawn chairs waiting for the 11 a.m. opening. I loved the scene of old and young whiling away hours just for a helping of ribs and brisket, but I couldn’t come up with the shot that would capture the scene. Waiting for inspiration to strike, I suddenly spotted a man with a great beard ambling up the street and knew that what I’d intended to photograph was about to be trumped by what was randomly crossing my path. Gesturing to the man, I asked if I could take his picture. He nodded, then suggested I stop by a beard contest he was judging for the Austin Facial Hair Club on Saturday afternoon. The minute I set foot in the Mohawk two days later, I knew I’d found Weird Austin.
Dan Westergren is the director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Instagram @danwestergren.