Photographer Made It His Mission To Capture East Austin's 'Essence' Before It Disappears

Jan 9, 2020

John Langmore was advocating for denser urban development to counteract sprawl when a closer look at some of the impacts of that development got his attention.

Langmore's involvement in a photography workshop sent him out and about in East Austin and gave him a new perspective. 

"I started to make this connection between things that I was advocating on the civic front with what was happening here in East Austin," Langmore said. "It just really made me realize that there's a human face to things that you advocate."

And in this case, he felt East Austin was "dramatically and disproportionately" impacted by new development.

So Langmore started documenting people, places and events in East Austin as the neighborhoods there changed. He kept at it from 2006 until 2011. Langmore says his mission was to "to let future generations know what existed here" because he believes it will be "really painful if there's a day when all this is gone. It's going to be a huge loss to this city."

Langmore has compiled his photographs into a book called Fault Lines: Portraits of East Austin. 

Listen to KUT's discussion with John Langmore and read the full interview below for more on why he started his East Austin photography project and how he navigated doing the work as an outsider in the neighborhoods.

 

This transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

John Langmore: Well, really, it started because I was doing a lot of advocacy, partly in conjunction with being involved with Capital Metro, but advocacy to promote infill growth as opposed to sprawling growth. Austin had been a sprawling community for ages.

I went to a photo workshop and someone encouraged me to do a project and do one locally. As I moved around in East Austin, I started to make this connection between things that I was advocating on the civic front with what was happening here in East Austin based on partly some of those policies.

It just really made me realize that there's a human face to things that you advocate. And clearly with promoting new infill development close to Central Austin, rich communities like old East Austin were dramatically and disproportionately impacted by that. There's a whole set of implications that came from that advocacy that really lent itself to realizing we're going to lose a really rich, long-standing community in Austin. People need to be aware of that, and people need to think about it. And also, it should be preserved.

KUT: Talk about those implications and impacts that you saw starting to play out in the other work that you were doing. What did you see happening in East Austin?

Langmore: The primary thing is, as there was new development — and you can look right here where we're standing at 12th and Chicon and look at a lot of it, there's a lot of new buildings — it raises the value of every piece of property next to it. ... As those property taxes start to increase, renters get pushed out because landlords pass on the property tax increase. ... 

Only a portion of the property taxes are capped each year. Even if you're elderly, part of them continue to rise, and people, working class families on a fixed retirement income, get pushed out of their homes. That's what I started to see. When I started this project in 2006, we were well into the gentrification. It's accelerated since then. I photographed from 2006 to 2011. I wasn't discovering something new. I was documenting something that I was well aware of was happening, and the city was starting to pay attention also.  

KUT: We are talking outside. We're at the corner of 12th and Chicon. Talk to us about what you see at this intersection and how that's different than what you saw 13, 14 years ago when you started.  

Langmore: 12th and Chicon was the hardest place for me to photograph.

KUT: Why was that?

Langmore: It was a pretty tough corner back in 2006, and it was one of the places I started. I remember a woman was sitting in her car, an African-American woman. You know, this was the African-American side of East Austin. An African-American woman sitting in her car saw me walking by with my cameras and called me over and said, “What are you doing? You are crazy to be here with those cameras. You should not be around here.”...

But there were also ... all these longstanding great local businesses like Marshall's Barber Shop. There were some clubs right over there on 12th and Chicon. It was a big gathering spot. ... And Sam's Bar-B-Que is still here, although I've heard he's been offered a small fortune for that piece of land and he's chosen not to take it. The Chicon right over here, brand new set of condominiums. All of these businesses, other than those few I mentioned, have all changed hands.

Most of it is really serving residents of the last ten years, not residents of the last 50 years. That's a huge change. That's going on in the Mexican-American side of East Austin, and it's going on across the African-American side of East Austin as well. 

KUT: You talked about the woman in the neighborhood who questioned you when you first came with your cameras. You were a white guy just kind of busting in to take pictures. How did you handle that? East Austin is not the neighborhood where you were living. It's not your home turf. How did you manage being a real outsider, trying to grab and document the culture, the inner workings of a neighborhood that you were not a part of? 

Langmore: That's a good and important question. As a starting point, I really feel it's important to say that, to acknowledge I am an outsider. I am telling someone else's story. It's their story. It's not mine. I'm simply telling it. I tried to do it honestly. And certainly in the book, Miss [Wilhelmina] Delco's essay and Johnny Limón’s essays really give the locals’ perspective.

And so as a documentary photographer, it's just really important that you be true to the story that you're telling and sincere to the people whose story you're telling. I hope and I believe that they sensed I was sincere in what I was doing. And I told them exactly what I had in mind: that this was for a book and I was only documenting old East Austin, and I felt it needed to be preserved. ... And I will say that people were very open to that.

At 12th and Chicon, the way I got in was I snapped a few pictures a bit from a distance, and I made prints. I came back and it was always the same people at the same corner. I brought the prints back, and they would ask me, “Oh, how much are you going to charge me for these?” And I'd say, “Of course, these are free. They're for you.” So when I did that, I think they sensed that I was genuine in telling their story and then they embraced me.

The folks at Sam's [Bar-B-Que] really took me in. That was kind of my place, my safe spot here at 12th and Chicon. I would come and go from there regularly. Just over time, people really got to know me because it was the same group of people over and over. They were really a warm group of people. You can see it in some of the photos at 12th and Chicon. You just have to come in the right way, and then the fear kind of fell away of being an outsider. I have to admit, everywhere, almost without exception, I was pretty warmly embraced by the community, even acknowledging that I'm an outsider.  

KUT: How did you figure out or decide what you were going to chronicle and what you were going to photograph?  

Langmore: I mention in the book a guy named Dr. Charles Urdy. I went to him. He and I were working together on some civic issues. I was fully committed to doing this project, and I asked him to put me on with some folks. And he said go see Bubba in the Doll House Barbershop, which is no longer there and I just found out from the guys at Marshall's that Bubba passed away not too long ago. But Dr. Urdy said go start with Bubba. Then Bubba introduced me to a friend Gene that had a garage just a little further east on 12th Street. And then Gene told me about another friend of his, and it was just one place led to the other.

Then they said, “Oh, we're having a birthday party. Come photograph our birthday party.” I always took prints back to them. And then I started getting invited to events, and then the doors just kind of fell open. I felt comfortable. They felt comfortable. And it just went from there. It was much easier than you would think.  

KUT: Was your project always meant to be more capturing that culture than the evolution? You stopped taking photos in 2011. But so much has changed in the nine years since then. What was your thinking about capturing that particular slice of time?

Langmore: It was 100% I was committed to capturing the culture of old East Austin. And a lot of people, particularly in the documentary photo world, encouraged me to do the change: show the old house right next to the brand new one that's coming. Honestly, I didn't want to tell that story through photographs. It didn't interest me.

When I went and photographed the people of East Austin, these African-American and Mexican-American communities, I went in telling them that I was documenting them, not the incoming folks. I was creating a document that was going to let future generations know what existed here really from the '20s to the '90s, and still exists in certain places. Marshall's is still here. And every time I go in there, there's a bunch of people in there getting their haircut. Hopefully it'll hang on for a long time.

Photographing the gentrifiers just didn't interest me. It’s not that it doesn't have merit. It just didn't interest me. I'm giving all these archives to the Austin History Center. So all of these photographs with the locations and as many of the people's names as I know and the shops will be preserved for posterity's sake, which is very important. I'm so glad that they've agreed to take those archives. This story is not about me. I'm just telling a story. It's really about the people that live in East Austin. It's for them. It's about them. That's who this book is meant to pay homage and tribute to.  

KUT: Is there a particular scene or image that you captured that really at the time struck you or impacted you in a particular way that's kind of stuck with you through all these years?  

John Langmore: Oh, God! Asking a photographer about their favorite photograph is like asking a parent about their favorite child. To me, you know, what's most important is that, collectively, all of the photographs give you a sense of what East Austin is like. But I will say there is one photograph taken right here, as a matter of fact, literally right over there, of a guy driving a convertible Cadillac with longhorns on the front. He's an African-American guy. He's got his child in the car with him, and he's shaking the hand of another kid that he knows that's come up to the car. This is during the Juneteenth Parade going north to south on Chicon Street.  

There's just such joy on their face in that convertible Cadillac and those horns. Then you can see people in the background. To me, it really conveys this rich sense of how much they all knew each other, and how much they cared for each other.

And that's really the essence of East Austin that I felt everywhere I went. And I can tell you that dynamic does not exist in West Austin. It was very unique to here, and it's a very special thing.  It's going to be really painful if there's a day when all this is gone from old East Austin. It's going to be a huge loss to this city. No doubt about it.