At the very beginning of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History nearly four years ago, Dallas’ most important documentary photographer, Carolyn Brown, indicated that she would like to make the Institute a major bequest: the photographs, negatives, and digital rights for her fifty-year career as a documentary photographer in the Middle East, Latin America, and Texas. For two years, she has worked with our own Lauren LaRocca to select from her body of work a comprehensive group for digitization on a state-of-the-art Hasselblad digital scanner acquired for her use by the Institute.
This process has yielded work for three exhibitions at the Institute’s DMA space and others throughout the state. Carolyn has also identified works of art and decorative art from the Middle East and Mexico in her personal collection, which she will bequeath to the Institute for the use of our students and for the enlivening of our seminar rooms and offices.
My own collaboration with Carolyn began almost two decades ago, and her bequest will give us the basis for an important collection of digitized images and prints that poetically record major ancient Roman, Islamic, pre-Hispanic, and viceregal sites in the Middle East and Mexico, as well as important series of photographs of Fair Park, Texas A&M, South Creek Ranch, the abandoned slaughter houses of northern Fort Worth, Lake Caddo, and other major architectural and natural sites.
We celebrate her in this issue and thank her for her profound generosity. Below, she describes her career and the gift in her own words.
Richard R. Brettell, Ph.D.
The Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History and the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair
In 2016 I made the decision to will my extensive archive of still photography to the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History. The archive comprises roughly 75,000 photographs (transparencies, digital scans, digital photographs, and prints) of architectural sites in the Middle East, Mexico and Central America, Dallas (including Fair Park), and the campus of Texas A&M University, College Station. In collaboration with the O’Donnell Institute, we are currently organizing and digitizing the archive, and over time will make the archive accessible through an online research portal. While old photographers finally pass on, their photographs can live on for hundreds of years.
My journey with photography began in 1969 when I lived in Cairo, Egypt for three years to study Islamic Art and Architecture at Cairo American University. We made weekly group field trips to ancient Fatimid and Mameluke mosques. I bought a Nikon 35mm camera to document each site, and discovered the thrill of photographing ancient buildings—a beginning of what would became not only a livelihood, but an obsession.
Many of these early photographs were hand-held slide images of Egyptians at the pyramids, colorful markets, religious feasts, and along busy streets among the remnants of ancient Cairo. After returning to the United States, I honed my skills, invested in high-end equipment and worked commercially as an architectural photographer–often returning to my beloved Middle East with my medium format Hasselblad to build a large image collection of some of the world’s most historic ancient sites. Over a period of fifteen years I travelled and photographed throughout Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Yemen and Turkey.
As the Middle East archive grew, in 1991 I began to photograph pre-Hispanic archaeological sites, viceregal churches, and natural landscapes in Mexico. Within ten years I had documented locations in more than twenty Mexican states, and throughout Guatemala. I began photographing church exteriors in bright sun for full color and sharpness. Then I discovered the interior. This space lives with a vitality of its own, breathing and moving in a tangle of decorated ceilings, altars, and walls of golden richness and delicately crafted forms. The explosive display of texture, color, and meaning within the church interior is but a portion of that ten year journey. The Snow-capped volcanoes of Popocateptl and Iztaccíhuatl perch outside the churches in Puebla and Tlaxcala, and the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico caress wide beaches of Veracruz and the Yucatan Peninsula, all bear witness to God’s majesty. At the end of winding dirt roads, across rich farmland and sometimes fog covered mountains, nestle pristine villages, each with a unique church in the village center or overlooking the world from a hilltop.
With direction and inspiration from my dear friend Dr. Richard Brettell, in 2000 the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at Southern Methodist University sponsored the historic exhibition of my photography, Sacred Space: Man and the Divine in Mexico, Guatemala and Southwest United States. Rick curated a selection of 300 photographs, many enlarged to thirty feet in length, filling the Hall of State at Fair Park during the State Fair. Thousands of fair-goers, school, and organization tours visited this exhibit during its six week run.
Rick and I worked together again in 2005 on Crafting Traditions: The Architecture of Mark Lemmon for the Meadows Museum. I photographed Lemmon’s contemporary Dallas buildings for the exhibit and catalogue, and Rick curated the large format exhibit, designed by David Gibson.
Today I continue to exhibit and produce photographs for books, most recently Dallas: Portrait of a City (2014), Visions of a Southern Cypress Lake co-authored with Thad Sitton TAMU Press (2015), and Architecture that Speaks: The Legacy of SCP Vosper, Texas A&M University 1928-1932 with David Woodcock FAIA and Nancy McCoy FAIA by TAMU Press (2017). Since 2015, I’ve produced rotating exhibitions of my work at the Edith O’Donnell DMA Research Center, curated by Lauren LaRocca, including The Middle East,The Tiled Churches of Puebla, and Pattern in Islamic Art. I also regularly exhibit at Craighead Green Gallery in Dallas.
The beauty of photography is that by looking at a photograph, one can immediately experience long-ago moments. The places and people I photograph will always be remembered exactly as they were that day the image was made. These experiences are an important part of incredible memories and will forever be in my heart—they are an important part of who I am today.