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Meet Kat Swansey, drawn to things that have 'seen better days'

Kat Swansey uses a medium-format camera to photograph in downtown San Antonio.
Nathan Cone
Kat Swansey uses a medium-format camera to photograph in downtown San Antonio.

A lot of photographer Kat Swansey’s childhood in Brenham was spent outdoors, as a “free range” kid, exploring and learning from her family, whose roots go back over a century in Washington County. Road trips were spent as far from the highway as possible. Now 33, Swansey lives in Austin where she works in the travel industry, and does plenty of solo traveling herself around Texas and New Mexico, documenting her adventures exclusively on film.

I recently invited Swansey in to the TPR studios to learn more about her art, and the art of traveling with a 35mm film camera for an eye. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Nathan Cone: So, you're originally from Brenham?

Kat Swansey: Yes, born and raised in Brenham. The hospital I was born in is now a thrift store! But, yeah, my family's been in Brenham for over a hundred years, and most of my family is still there. My grandparents are still there. So I really enjoy getting to go back home. And obviously, growing up in a small town really inspired a lot of the work that I do today.

What was growing up like for you?

Well, a lot of playing outside. I was born in 1990, so the Internet kind of came along a couple of years later, but super-slow dial up speeds, obviously. So [the] majority [of my time was] being outside, roaming around, having free range of everything. What I really appreciated the most was just having the opportunity to learn from my grandfather. My grandfather on my dad's side was a photographer and he had a home office and it was the first room that you walked into whenever you went into their house. And there were just cameras everywhere. I wasn't allowed to play with any of them, but occasionally I would sneak off and before I got busted would kind of tinker with his cameras a little bit. And then on the other side, you know, my grandfather on my mom's side, my Papa, is a pretty common theme on my Instagram. He is really into classic cars and he also loves taking backroads. And so everywhere we went, if we could avoid the highway as much as possible, we would. And he just has a wealth of knowledge about Washington County.

So that was always kind of fascinating to me as a kid. I think I've just always been really interested in a life that happened before me, probably because I was so close to my grandparents and I still am. That really shaped a lot of my photography, because so much of my photography is places that are really old, maybe abandoned, a lot of dilapidated stuff and then obviously a lot of landscape things.

Have you traveled more extensively, you think, than your parents and grandparents? It seems like kids always spread even further than the generations before them. And what's their reaction been like?

Well, I think they miss me, but I think they love that I get to go out and travel so much. My grandfather was a truck driver for a while, so he did some pretty extensive traveling and then obviously was in the Army. But I think I've definitely seen a lot more of Texas, at least. And I have a day job which is working in travel, so I'm fortunate I get to travel for my day job… and for photography, which is pretty nice. But yeah, it's super fun. They love hearing about all of the experiences and the new places that I get to visit. And I think for them, they always just thought that I was just out wandering. But then they saw this like, tangible thing that I put together into a book. And the last few times that I was home, my grandpa has been flipping through it and it's been sitting very close to his recliner. The last time I was home about a month ago, he was rereading it and he asked me to bring him five copies because he wants to give them to his friends at church and he wants to get me into the library and bring them now because I'm in the San Antonio Library. So he feels like I need to be in the Brenham Public Library as well.

An image from "Texas Textures."
Kat Swansey
An image from "Texas Textures."

This is a good a time as any to name the book itself, which is "Texas Textures."

Yes, it's named after one of my favorite Guy Clark songs. If anybody's related to Guy Clark, please don't sue me! I promise, it's a loving thing, and I give credit in the book! But yeah, it's named after one of my favorite lyrics in Guy Clark's "Rita Ballou." It was actually something I've wanted to do since I was 13 and I was driving down Highway 90, going out to West Texas, and "Rita Ballou" came on, and I'm just kind of singing along to the words and hear "Texas textures." And I'm like, "That's it." That has to be the name of the book. It's going to be so perfect because there is a little bit of the landscape, but there's also a lot of those old buildings that line the highways all throughout Texas. And so I wanted to give it a name that would make sense.

I noticed in your Instagram feed that on occasion when you're displaying photos of a building, especially that you're identifying when you can, what it was or what was there, how much research and reading or arms or kind of investigating do you do when you're traveling to learn about the places that you photograph?

Countless hours. A lot of the research happens actually before I visit places, so I have a really large map with pins on it. And then each pin will either have an address or something that identifies what it was. A lot of the places that I go to don't have humans wandering around, so sometimes it's hard to get that information from people who live there. But Texas is unique in the sense that there are a lot of people really invested in the history of these places. The Texas Historical Association has a wealth of information online that's really helpful. There's also the University of North Texas photo archives... they've all been digitized. And so you can kind of poke around in there, too. And then there's a website called Texas Escapes that is mostly user-generated content. So photographers or people who just enjoy wandering around small towns will take photos of things and upload them.

Now, there's the rise of the Facebook groups. So there's the Texas Backroads, Facebook groups and whatnot, and people will upload information in there. And sometimes you can get different tidbits about places from the comments because these groups have gotten so popular. So it's really just taking the time to poke around and dig. Most of my research happens before I even get to these places. And then of course, I find places along the way that I didn't know existed or maybe just kind of found on accident. And then I have to just jot down a note. Usually I take a photo with my phone and geotag it, and then I kind of have the address or maybe the general area of where it is, and I can go poke around on Google and try to find it. So I do my best to provide that information. Sometimes that information just doesn't exist, but I try to provide some context about what it used to be.

A portrait of the De La Garza house in San Antonio, shot on Kodak Portra 160 film.
Kat Swansey
A portrait of the De La Garza house in San Antonio, shot on Kodak Portra 160 film.

What makes a building or a place interesting to you? Because there's lots of shacks and ramshackle structures everywhere… but what is it that you see in something that makes it interesting to you?

Sometimes it's hard to define. Sometimes it could just be I just catch it out of the corner of my eye and I'm like, “Oh, I got to turn around and go back and find that.” I really like things that have a lot of rust for some reason! Just visually, I find that very appealing because, you know, a lot of these places are built out of wood and they've got these tin roofs. I feel like the rustier it is, there's more of that texture, right? Which kind of goes back to “Texas Textures.” I'm really drawn to abandoned things that maybe look like they've seen better days. But I also really like things that stick out, you know, like if it's covered in a lot of shrubbery or trees and whatnot, I try not to photograph those places too much, but I really like things that just stick out like maybe it's just the one building in a field and there's not really a lot surrounding it. That and gas pumps! If there's an old gas pump, I'm slamming on the brakes and I'm doing a U-turn and I'm going back!

Well, those gas pumps, they always signify the era of the early motor vehicles.


And you can picture in your head kind of what it was like to be a traveler along that road.

And a lot of those places are the only place for miles on end. That always kind of fascinates me as well, because we're fortunate in today's world, there's a gas station or a corner store on every corner. But for me, being only 33, sometimes it's hard to fathom just how spaced out things were back then. And sometimes I come across these places and I'm like, how did they survive out here? [laughs] Because there's nothing for miles on end. And they were able to provide a service to the people who lived out there, and especially these communities, which would probably be considered ghost towns these days. You have to be tough and have a lot of grit to really survive in some of these places.

I've always been nostalgic for like an era that I wasn't even born in, you know? I don't actually know what it's like, but just hearing all these stories that have been passed down through my grandparents or family friends.

Have you ever considered taking along a microphone to document some of these conversations you have while you're out in the field?

Yeah, I really thought about investing in like a GoPro or some kind of video camera type thing where I could get more video content and talk about it that way as well. But I'm one of those people I always bite off more than I can chew. And so I have a laundry list of ideas that I really want to do. The book came about obviously because I had a lot of time during the pandemic and kind of busted out that list of things I would always do if I had time. But doing more of the storytelling aspect is definitely on the list and putting the book out and writing the, you know, short stories and tales and anecdotes that are in there was kind of a first step for me because that's not always my strong suit when it comes to photography. I wanted to make sure that I was doing right by these places. And I didn't want it to sound to self-centered, I guess. I didn't want [the book] to be about me, even though I am a part of it. I wanted it to be about the places themselves and my experience visiting these places because I think I have a unique perspective in some regards. There are a lot of people who go out to these small towns and take photos of them, but I think what makes it different for me is that I'm a woman and I do it by myself. I don't really encounter very many women. In fact, I've never encountered another woman out in small towns taking photos in Texas. I think the one thing that I get the most questions about is do I feel safe? Do I feel comfortable? You have to trust your gut. I hope [the book] inspires other women to get out and do it, because I think that there are there are a lot of women who really want to and are scared to take that next step.

Kat Swansey in front of the O. Henry House in San Antonio.
Nathan Cone
Kat Swansey in front of the O. Henry House in San Antonio.

Let me switch gears and talk about gear, because you're a film photographer. I mean, you probably started snapping away digitally. But what made you decide to start shooting on film?

Well, actually, I've always shot on film! I have a digital camera, which is courtesy of my day job, which I'm grateful to have. But it sits on a shelf. If I'm going out to photograph places for myself, I'm lugging around a bunch of film cameras with me. I have several, but my three go-tos if I'm going to shoot 35 millimeter, I have a Canon Elan 7NE that I really like a lot. And then I've got a Canon AE1. I love shooting with the Canon AE1, but it's like a battle tank, it's so heavy. And at the end of the day, generally my hands get really tired and I feel like I have carpal tunnel sometimes. Lately I've been shooting a lot more medium format, so I have a Mamiya 645 that I really like shooting with. It is a heavy camera, but not as heavy as a lot of other medium format cameras.

Define medium format for those who don't know and are thinking about...

Medium format is a much bigger [negative] and really varies. With 35 millimeter, you're going to have the same size negative, but with medium format, you can get anywhere from like a 645 up to like a six by seven, so significantly larger. And those numbers are in centimeters. So if you can visually, you know, do the math, you'll just have a much larger negative. And it is actually cheaper than shooting 35 millimeter, which is a big reason why I made the switch. So 35 millimeter, the cost has like skyrocketed. But thankfully, medium format is still a little bit more affordable than 35 millimeter. And I think it's because it's not as accessible and there is a little bit of a learning curve with it. There are a lot of similarities, but there are also a lot of differences. But what I really appreciate about it is because the film is bigger, you don't have 24 or 36 exposures to work with like you do with 35 millimeter. You have, you know, maybe ten, maybe 15 on each roll of film. So you kind of have to slow down and like really rethink those shots because you have less film to work with. But I also really like it because you can do more with the negatives. You can print at a much larger scale. So if you want to sell prints or copies of your work, it makes it a little bit easier. The quality is much better than a traditional 35 millimeter print. Not to discourage anyone who's printing that way... I do a lot of prints of my 35 millimeter photographs as well, but there's just such a stark difference in in quality.

Ultimately, what is it about film photography versus digital that you love?

I love the grain. I even love the dust that occasionally makes its way into your shots. I feel like it adds a little bit more texture to the images. And I just I love that with each photo that I take, I'm creating something physical and something that's tangible that I can hold. Not that you can't do that with digital photography. You can obviously print those images, but from start to finish, you know, you've got the film in the camera, you're taking an image. And that alone is like something organic that you've created. But there's also the layer of mystery. I hope I'm not jinxing myself saying this. Very rarely do I have a photo that doesn't turn out. But sometimes I forget about a photo that I took, and then you get the negatives back, you finally get them scanned and you see a photograph that you took and you forgot [about]. And it looks better than you even remember it looking. It's like Christmas Day. I mean, it's better than Christmas for me, you know? When, like, an image turns out really well. I went to Cuba last September, and there there's this photo that I took right outside of the Bacardi building. And it's of this old, like '57 Chevy convertible. And the timing just lined up so perfectly for me. There was a bus coming right behind it, and I took two photos of it and I was like, one of these has to turn out where I've just got this beautiful, classic car driving down the road with the Bacardi building in the back, which is a beautiful building, or both of them are going to be really bad because the bus made it in. But I'm not going to know for another week until I get back home, right? And so for the rest of the trip, it was just like every time I pulled my camera out, I'm like, man, I really hope one of those photos turned out. And then I got back to Texas, took the film to Holland Photo Imaging, and got my negatives back. And one of them is just a perfect shot. I don't actually frame my own work and hang it in my apartment, but I do have that one hung up framed because it just it worked out so well.

Two more questions just to kind of wrap up. One, I'm going to ask you to sort of give away trade secrets, which is: what are your what are your favorite areas or and or towns in the state to shoot?

Oh, that's both easy and hard. Hmm. Well, honestly, not that I want to plug my book, but a lot of my favorites are in “Texas Textures” because it was the first iteration of the book. I'm hoping to turn it into something where I can do different volumes of it. I love Marathon out in West Texas. That's like my little desert refuge. It's so picturesque. Sanderson is a really fun town to photograph. A lot of really old buildings there. And it's been fun to watch it become a little bit more up and coming. You know, years ago when I first started going out to West Texas, there was nothing to do there. Now there's a coffee shop where you can actually buy “Texas Textures,” which is really cool. It's called Ferguson Motor Company. I really like photographing this town, Melvin. It's very close to the geographical center of Texas.I also really like photographing Brenham… where else? You know, I haven't found a town yet that I didn't like. And so many of them, you know, one thing that I hear a lot is like, well, don't you think every small town in Texas looks the same? And I'm like, some of them do, but they all have their own character. It's just you got to maybe pull off the highway and just kind of poke around a little bit and see what's there. But yeah, I haven't found a town yet that I haven't enjoyed. But if you flip through “Texas Textures,” all of those are on any given day, they're my favorite town. [laughs]

And then finally, the advice question, for somebody getting back into this photography thing. What advice do you have?

Just go for it. When I first started going out to small towns, For some reason, was really anxious about people seeing me. And even sometimes whenever I'm doing more street photography, you know, maybe walking around like a city like San Antonio. I hear a lot that people-- I'm not the only person that has felt that way-- there's something that is kind of anxiety inducing about just like having someone see you take a picture of something. And I don't know why because, people have been photographing things forever, and especially now, we have cameras in our back pocket. You know, everybody's cell phone has a camera on it these days, and we're all taking pictures of random things.

Well, a phone is not the same as a big, long lens!

Yeah! [laughs] Well, also, I think sometimes I I'm just like, oh, like, not that... I'm very personable and I love talking to people, but sometimes, you know, I think it can be kind of anxiety inducing that like somebody might come up and be like, “What are you doing? Why are you here?” You know, or, or maybe they aren't happy that you're taking a photo of something, of their building or something. Anyway, my advice is to just get out and do it. I, for some reason used to be really nervous about it, and it's been one of the most rewarding things that I've done. Obviously, it's a very expensive hobby to have, but it's brought me so much joy in my life. It's been a great way for me to connect with other photographers. I've met people around the world that I would have never had an opportunity to connect with or learn from. And it's fun. It gets you out. You can see things that you maybe have driven past a hundred times and never even looked at a second time. I love that I get to take photos, but being able to share them with other people is a lot of fun.

Kat Swansey, thank you so much.

Thank you for having me.