Remembering Ed Christman, 1947-2020

A great friend and photographer, Ed Christman, passed away June 30 after battling with Parkinson’s for many years. A few years ago, after his tremors became profound and disabling, he had a surgical procedure that helped some but it could not protect him from the continuing ravages of the disease and time.

Ed was my photography mentor. I met him sometime in the 1980s or 90s when he was Dow’s head photographer. I worked at United Way and we needed a volunteer to help us with our color brochures and other campaign graphics.

I was surprised to learn that Ed didn’t mind talking to a family snapshot photographer about some of the finer points of getting good photos. He didn’t pretend that better equipment makes you better photographer. Mind you, as a corporate photographer, Ed had the good stuff but it was apparent to anyone who watched him work that his genius was in positioning, distance, relationship with human subjects, ability to read the light and a lot of other things that the camera can’t do for you, at least not with the same degree of perfection as a human who understands his machine and knows how to make it do what he wants it to do.

This is a photo of Ed I took eight years ago when we worked together on some publicity shots for “Dividing the Estate,” a Horton Foote show being produced by Brazosport Center Stages. I felt happy to tag along with Ed, mostly to see how he went about his work. You will notice in the photograph that he has adorned his flash with that photographer’s cheapest and most cost-effective gadget, an index card flash reflector. But he did have the nice Nikon gear. I followed him around with my little point-and-shoot (a pretty nice one actually – the Canon Powershot G11) and got a few fair shots. Ed’s, of course, were spectacular.

The things he did with light outdoors gave me an education in the possibilities for softening natural light on sunny days. His interaction with people who were posing for him struck me as being icing on the Nikon cake. Equipment alone could not explain the cooperation he got from the play’s actors. He didn’t ask people to say cheese, he made them feel happy to be on the other side of the lens from such a genuinely nice and happy man.

There wasn’t a lot of energy in him for show photography after that. He came out to The Center in November that same year to take some publicity shots for the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast. He allowed me to post a few of them on my Flickr site so others could view them. He was a little too early for Instagram and all the online toys that photographers like to use now. But he was happy for me to put some online for the cast to see. They are all carefully attributed to Ed. I do that even though it would be apparent to anyone that the difference between his shots and mine would quickly show me up as a photo-plagiarist.  Here are a couple of Ed’s shots from that November EMF shoot.

I was stunned by the beauty of his work. Here is the steward bearing the wassail. And, then, there is this Dutch master. I found this one to be simply breathtaking.

When our son got married in 1999, we asked Ed to do the wedding. That, if you remember, was back when photographers used film. What Ed did with that film was remarkable.

Nor was there anything fake or plastic about Ed’s presentations. No scrapbooks, silver frames, special sets for Grandma and Grandpa. All you got from Ed were packets of prints and negatives. No watermarks. No special permission for reprints. No proofs to pick from.

I will never forget when he came to our house after the wedding with about twenty packages of color prints and negatives. He left them with us. That was his total presentation. I asked if he wanted us to go through them and pick some for final printing.

“No, they are all yours. You may print as many as you wish.” He recommended a local photo printer who could give us any size, matte or glossy, and who had scrapbooks, mailers, frames, etc.

He left and we started to go through the envelope – twenty envelopes, each with 36 exposures. They were almost all beautiful photographs. I don’t think there were half a dozen throwaways in the whole batch. The man wasted no film. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen.

He had no need for PhotoShop. In fact, his wife has told me he detested it mightily. His philosophy was that you should do it right when you open and close the shutter. And sure enough, all but a few were perfection. He made a precise exposure and an elegant, perfect composition with each frame. I am still in awe of his art and his skill in coaxing the best work out of the camera.

We had one more wedding to go after that. Needless to say, we asked Ed to do it again. By then he had moved to digital. I have also stored a few of those on my Flickr site. Again, his art is at another level. Those wedding photographs he took of our children have given us anchors in time on two of our happiest days. Ed was able to see those life events with the same intensity of feeling that the parents felt on those days and he captured them for us to enjoy for all these years. All these years later, they live on.

Ed was a photographer trapped in a literary family of writers, teachers, and actors. I don’t know which of them was the primary author of his obituary, but whether by the Christman team or one individual author, they have said it best:

While raising his family, Ed became one of the most popular photographers of Brazoria County. Early evenings—when the light was perfect—weekends, and holidays were filled with portraits, weddings, celebrations. Attired in a utility vest and a broad-brimmed hat, he captured moments of joy, solemnity, achievement, honor, camaraderie, daring, and love. Ed taught people to see, to focus on the light in the eyes, to find a person’s best angle, and—as light does—to illumine the beauty sometimes concealed by shadow. In his art, whether a portrait, a candid shot, a cityscape, an industrial, a shell in the sand, or an old oak draped in Spanish moss at dusk, Ed found the uncanny perfection hidden in plain sight. He showed us ourselves and our world as only he could see them.

We miss Ed’s presence in our community.  But he has captured time for us in photography’s special way. We see the images and we feel those moments again. Thank you for those treasures, brother Ed.

Remembering Father Williams

Father Charles Williams (1989-1994) had a keen interest not only in setting the intellectual tone of the parish but also in enhancing its artistic environment. The emphasis on the arts was most appropriate, for the parish served as a place of rehearsal, performance, and research for fine arts students, especially from TWU, for many years. Father Williams encouraged the remodeling of the altar area. After his death, the parish published a book of his sermons. Though known for his intellectualism and quiet nature, Father Williams also provided a good laugh. After telling the children at a Blessing of the Animals ceremony that pets did not go to heaven, he was petitioned by the children to reconsider. By that point, he had acquired a much-loved dog and deemed that pets did, indeed, go to heaven.

From the history of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Denton, Texas) posted on the church’s web site: https://stbarnabasdenton.org/about-us/history/
Father Charles Thomas Williams served as Rector at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church from 1989 until his death at the age of fifty in 1994. He was my friend in college and best man at my wedding.

The parishioners at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denton, Texas, must have thought it rude for a tourist to show up just before the morning service Sunday (February 23) as the congregation gathered for worship. My wife and I were just starting our trip back to Lake Jackson after spending Saturday watching our granddaughter compete in a gymnastics meet. We had discussed the possibility of looking up the church in Denton where my college roommate and our best man had served as rector until his death in 1994.

I was was pretty sure I would not enjoy being among strangers, most of whom would be too young to know my friend and none of whom, certainly, would know the Charles Thomas Williams I knew in college at the University of Houston. Moreover, I didn’t want our presence to be disruptive of the worship environment.

“But there may be a memorial of some kind and we could at least look around the outer grounds,” my wife argued. I acceded and she parked the car while I strapped my monster camera around my neck, slapped on my big Stetson crushable, and did my best to look like anything but a person hoping to be drawn into conversation with an Episcopalian in a worshipful mood.

Continue reading “Remembering Father Williams”

We Lose an Old Friend: Don Sanders, Houston Music Legend

Don Sanders, songwriter and singer, died Saturday from the combined effects of frontotemporal dementia accompanied by ALS, a very cruel combination in the Alzheimer family of disorders. It was a final irony on his career that his death was big news in the Houston Chronicle, a paper that had paid him little attention during his most productive years.

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Don Sanders, July 1, 2012, during a visit to Lake Jackson.

I met Don Sanders just after enrolling at the University of Houston in 1961. Don came there from Jones High School in Houston. I arrived from Galena Park.

We had both been accepted into the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, the forerunner of today’s Honors College. We had several classes together each our first two years and a weekly colloquium in the junior and senior years.

Don was a sharp kid. He had an acerbic wit and a green corduroy suit that he wore almost every day of our freshman year or, who knows, he may have owned several. But I doubt it. He didn’t come from the kind of family where the kids had more than one suit. The suit was in the style of his heroes the Kingston Trio.

Don played guitar and banjo and sang folk songs that were beginning to pick up in popularity in the early sixties. We learned from Don about hootenannies, the Limeliters, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and Joan Baez. As Don became an accomplished musician, he sang with beautiful control and a great range. Early on, he was always high pitched and his voice could be irritating at first. The beauty and finesse of his vocal performances I heard thirty years later were shocking to me at first.

But Don was so much more than a folk singer. He wrote songs, performed on stage, did comedy, wrote a novel or two (never published as far as I know), performed for children, and wrote probably tons of poems. Apparently, even more than those things, he inspired other people to do their best work. Some of them are names you probably know very well. He was a regular at Houston’s Anderson Fair and on KPFT.

I wasn’t in touch with Don after college. His music scene was not one that I fit into and I was busy with the kind of boring white collar jobs he was intent on avoiding. His astonishing career is fairly well covered in the Houston Chronicle article. There is also an interview in the Houston folk music oral history archive.

Don and I were in touch again after Hurricane Ike in 2009 when he performed at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston as a benefit to help rebuild the facility that had been severely damaged in the storm. In 2012 he asked if I could help him with some memories from our college years for the personal memoir he was writing. I wondered whether it would still seem like a friendship after all those years pursuing our very different lives. But we found a lot of joy in our conversation that day, July 1, 2012.

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Visiting with Don in 2012.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much I could offer to fill in the cracks in such a creative life as his. We reminisced about the day in November 1963 when we went to his house near the runways of Hobby Airport (it was Houston International then) to see if we could see John Kennedy on his arrival in Texas. There were several of us from University of Houston and we did, indeed, get to see the president and first lady, two days before he was killed in Dallas.

Three or four of us stayed over at Don’s house that night. His mother made breakfast for us and as we prepared to make our way back to our morning classes at UH, Don called out, “Charles, Tom: come and see these guys. I have never seen anything like this. They are going to be big.” So we rushed in to see the image of the Beatles performing on tape on the Dave Garroway Show. You could have fooled me. Although I became accustomed to and learned to love the Beatles later, I really didn’t get what was so special then. But Don had the ear for it. This was several months before they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and took America by a storm.

My regret today is that I did not pay more attention to an old friend as he struggled to make it in the music world. He apparently inspired others and they did the things they had to do to have fame. But Don wanted something else. He wanted peace: peace in the world and peace in his own life. Staying in Houston was his gift to America’s new great city.

Don came back to visit Lake Jackson again in the summer of 2013 when I invited him to see our Brazosport Center Stages production of Les Misérables. He had kind things to say about our local production.

I went to see Don at his home in the Heights a few weeks ago. By then, his disease had greatly diminished his ability to communicate. We spoke a few short minutes and he told me had to go somewhere which was highly unlikely. I held his hand and told him I would try to return when he had more time to talk. But I knew he was uncomfortable with the visit and I really doubted I would be returning.

Sunday morning, I received the email announcing his passing.