Book Review: Epic Feats
The vibrant images of Texas taken by J. Griffis Smith will have you wanting to drive across the state yourself
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 19, 2014
On the Road With Texas Highways: A Tribute to True Texas
by J. Griffis Smith
Texas A&M University Press, 244pp., $29.95 (paper)
In a state as expansive as Texas, visiting every picturesque burg and natural wonder isn't something most folks have the time or automotive stamina to do. Well, J. Griffis Smith clearly ain't most folks, as is evident from this new coffeetable tome from Texas A&M Press. He claims to have logged a quarter of a million miles cruising the length and breadth of the Lone Star State, and you're loath to doubt him since he has the pictures to prove it: 294 vivid color photographs shot during his three-decade stint on the staff of Texas Highways magazine. Okay, okay, so it's been his job to roam Texas and record such glories as bluebonnets in Spring, the vast scrublands surrounding Terlingua, the grafitti-covered, half-buried cars of Amarillo's Cadillac Ranch, the stately homes of San Antonio's King William district. The achievement's still mighty impressive, especially considering the visual record of it. Sure, you have the obligatory shots of longhorns, wildflowers, and Willie – he is working, after all, for a travel magazine published by the Texas Department of Transportation – but Griff, as he's known to most, is able to present even some of the state's most overexposed icons in a new light, as with his 2009 shot of the Alamo, its famous roofline set against a cobalt sky, the warm light accentuating the weathered, pockmarked state of the facade and making it seem aged and frail, like an elderly dowager posing for her portrait.
Smith has an eye for character, which he puts to good use whether the subject is Gary Clark Jr. or a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, and he long ago befriended color, so his photographs routinely pop with saturated hues. You see it in a striking shot of the Round Top Fourth of July parade, where the parade and people watching it are glimpsed beneath a fluttering flag that covers the entire top half of the frame, the red of the stripes so bright as to be almost lurid and causing the red on the passing firetruck and the shirts of assorted viewers to blaze. Wielding these twin skills, Smith imbues places with as much personality as people, as with the haunted swamps of Caddo Lake, its tall, moss-draped cypresses standing like ghostly sentinels in the dark waters. When you know the thing he's shooting, the image comes across as your best memory of it: sharp, vibrant, caught in a moment of memorable beauty or drama. And if you don't know the thing, his image has the pull of a magnet, drawing you to come see for yourself this wonder of Texas. You'll want to climb behind the wheel of the cherry-red Mustang on the book's cover and just drive, drive, drive.