An Outside Eye
Photographer Kevin Greenblat Captures the Outliers, Both People and Places
by Anne Bruno
What Kevin Greenblat sees through his camera’s lens is only what happens in the moment he clicks the shutter; it’s not necessarily the same story that’s revealed when the picture is developed.
“I shoot with a slow camera, which means you have to be pretty deliberate about what you do. For me, the time that goes by between when I shoot and develop the picture really matters,” Greenblat says. “A photo is never the actual experience, and something happens in the waiting. I think or feel certain things when I’m shooting, but you never know what the story’s going to be that the picture wants to tell. And I like that.”
With several of his photographs being added this year to the Wittliff Collections of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Texas State University, Greenblat’s work is gaining new attention. This month, he will show at the East Austin Studio Tour as a guest of Wolf Collection.
In his first book, “PlantLife of Western Texas,” published in late 2017, Greenblat explores Texas landscapes that feel at once familiar and slightly mysterious. You’ve seen these plants before, but what makes Greenblat’s black-and-white images so arresting is the experience that’s apparent between the plants and the people who live among them. It’s a relationship as constant as the sky though always changing and one that, as captured by Greenblat, imparts divergent emotions. A sturdy mesquite tree’s twisted trunk offers a foundation for a plywood house built inside the tree’s tangle of branches. The spines of a prickly pear can’t keep its flesh from being scarred through the years by passersby and lovers wanting to leave their mark by carving initials into it.
“Over time, I realized that I have to shoot in places that aren’t just interesting but are where I want to be and really explore for days or weeks at a time. Texas, Mexico, Louisiana … places where it feels like time doesn’t pass very fast or even at all,” says Greenblat, a native of New Jersey, who followed college friends to Austin, expecting to stay only a few months. “That was in 1997, and while I travel a lot, Austin has been my home base ever since.”
Greenblat’s photos frequently have a sense of the outsider. “My strongest images tend to be of people who are sort of on the edges and not always seen. I grew up in a family of nonpracticing Jews, so I never felt a sense of cultural or religious heritage. And here I am in Texas, a place I have no personal history with. I guess I feel something with the outliers who let me in to take their pictures. I’m a witness, and at the same time I can relate to them.”
Eight years of shooting went into the book, and as it came closer to publication, the project morphed into a collaboration with friend and writer Philipp Meyer, the author of the international best-seller and Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Son.”
“I met Philipp through a friend of a friend several years ago. From the beautiful way he writes about people and their relationship to the natural environment, I knew he’d be perfect to write the foreword,” Greenblat explains. “At the time I approached him, we didn’t really know each other, but he liked the photos I sent and said he was in. When we got to know each other better, he said something to the effect of, ‘Hey, I love the concept, but your writing’s not up to par for these photos, so I’m going to write the text, too.’ I said, ‘OK, great. Even better!’”
With that honest beginning and a healthy dose of mutual respect, the two Austinites became quick compadres, sharing a wry, offbeat sense of humor. Meyer, Greenblat says, has served as a source of encouragement as Greenblat’s next big project, about the cowboy culture in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, takes shape. “I have to remind myself sometimes how important a sense of freedom and play is to what I’m doing,” says Greenblat. “You can get really serious about everything and lock yourself into a box with these boundaries. When I get out of that, things flow and I like the work that comes out of it.”