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From the Oil Patch to the Sun: Nick Russell's Early Photography

The photos shown here are a selection from Nicolas Russell’s show at SouthPop Austin, opening Oct 22 through Dec 2, 2017. They were taken during Nick’s time at the University of Texas and shortly thereafter. Many were featured in the Austin Sun, where Nick worked as a staff photographer.

Nick’s statement:

“I drove into Austin in January 1975 after eight months working as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oilfields. The work on the oil rig was repetitive; almost Zen, and it gave me a lot of time to think. It was during that period I decided to pursue journalism and photography which, in turn, led me to Austin and U.T.’s School of Communication.

Austin was winter sunshine and beautiful when I arrived. At that time the city had a population only a quarter of its current size. The University was top notch, and besides my classes I worked at the Daily Texan as a photographer. In the evenings, on my own time, I began to explore Congress Avenue and Sixth Street area with my camera. It was a very different environment there than today. It was much seedier, yet the streets were filled with friendly prostitutes, street people and an unlikely group of young gays who dressed in drag and congregated on a part of Sixth Street. It was really quite a scene.

As the summer ended I took a selection of my drag queen images to the Austin Sun offices where I met Jeff Nightbyrd, the editor. He loved he photos and said he wanted to put them on the cover of the alternative newspaper. They were my first published photos; I was paid $45.

For the next two years I was part of the group at the center of the Austin Sun. Under-financed and under-staffed; nevertheless, the Sun understood the Austin zeitgeist and manifested the conviction to cover what really mattered. Austin at that time was a powerful crosscurrent of music, politics and culture. Despite the fact that Austin was most often described as a laid-back place, everything seemed to be happening here, and all at once.

There was music everywhere in the clubs. Major writers like William Burroughs and Jorge Luis Borges and other cultural figures were coming to town to speak and lecture or promote their latest projects. National politicians like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford paraded through town at a dizzying pace …. and basically the only thing required of me was to show up with my camera.

The relative ease of entry never diminished the realization of how fortunate it was to be present at that moment in time. Years would pass, and those of us who were there would look back on this period in Austin as a sort of golden age that seems to glow more brightly with each passing year. It was the beginning of my life in photography, a moment in time when everything seemed possible and amazingly … was.”

Nick Russell

Click on any photo to see larger and in a slide show.

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