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Picturing Texas Politics

Visionary photographers recognize the truth in their subjects

Editor’s note: There was a time—about 160 years ago—when photographs of politicians were a rarity in Texas. That’s hard to believe, but consider this passage from Picturing Texas Politics:

As Edward Burleson’s daughters tell it, they had traveled the short distance into town one day in 1850 and passed a photographer’s studio. Their father was unshaven and dressed “in his every day farm suit.” General Burleson had served in the Second Congress, had been elected vice president of the Republic of Texas, and had run against Anson Jones for president of Texas, later serving as Texas Senate President Pro Tempore until the end of his life in 1851. From today’s perspective, his curriculum vitae reads like that of a politician. But according to his cousin Rufus Burleson, the general was much more a statesman than a politician—and intentionally never had his photograph made until he gave in to his daughters’ loving entreaties that day in San Marcos.

In 1887 Rufus Burleson recounted his late cousin’s “utter disregard of notariety [sic] or rather his unutterable contempt for seeking fame,” and explained that Edward Burleson had not had his photographic likeness made because “he had such contempt for all the tricks and artifice that little souls rise [sic] to magnify themselves …” That day in San Marcos, Edward Burleson bent to family politics, if no other politics, and sat for the iconic daguerreotype portrait now held in the Texas State Archives.

The many pictures that [author Chuck] Bailey has selected for [Picturing Texas Politics] are extraordinary examples of Texas photography, images not only political but also remarkably human. This is a collection of photographs both made and taken by visionary photographers who exploited the technology available to them in their time.

Some of the photographers represented here are well known, while the names of others are already lost. Most of them were steady and reliable. They strove to recognize the truth in their subjects and they captured that truth in their photos. For the most part, they were charismatic people who liked to get along, but they did what they needed to get their shot. They found their spot and they let their cameras do the talking.

Text and photos excerpted from Picturing Texas Politics (University of Texas Press, 2015).