Review: George Brainard’s Library Photo Exhibit Excavates the Roots of Austin Culture
The 11 Portrait by George Brainard show those who have made Austin so unique.
There’s a lot to take in at the new Austin Central Library. The 200,000 square-foot building is nearly 600 feet tall and has over 350,000 items to enjoy in one of its 589 seats. However, it only takes 11 portraits on the 6th floor by George Brainard to discover some of the cities most important and influential figures.
Austin Originals, Portraits of the People That Shape Our City explores the roots of Austin’s rich cultural history. Brainard is a sixth generation Texan whose images capture ordinary people and experiences in their most raw form; looking to excavate the soul in every moment and everything. In Portraits of the People That Shape Our City, Brainard adjusts his style to fit the task. Rather than extracting the extra from the ordinary, Brainard captures the humanity of the powerful. To do so he relies on his ability to frame subjects in their comfort zones. The images are so well done they seem underserved by their placement on the library’s sixth floor.
From 2013 to 2017, Brainard’s portraits of iconic locals were published in Austin Monthly for a photo-interview series called “The Things I’ve Learned.” In January they were installed at the library as part of FotoATX, a citywide photography festival that celebrated the work of local artists.
Instead of being placed in the library’s art gallery on the second floor, they’re in the “Living Room” on the library’s 6th floor.
This specific location within the library isn’t too big of a hindrance to the exhibit’s success, however. The bigger issue is their presentation. The exhibit’s first two portraits hang on a small wall in the southwest corner of the room. A hallway separates these images from the rest that hang on the adjacent wall. The procession of these images, though, is fractured by wall indents to give way to a copy machine, a computer, and a library staff help desk. For an exhibit intended to reveal those “That Shape our City,” it should be presented cohesively. Instead, they’re placed in such a way that makes it tough to distinguish the images from cookie-cutter wall decor from afar.
Many library goers didn’t even see the images on the wall, while others simply walked by, paying more mind to their phones or getting to one of the other attractions the library offers. Those who did stop to look at the images could realize it was an installed exhibit by coming closer to read its label and wall text. This explains that Brainard is a famed local photographer who has had images featured in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and more.
The first portrait adjacent to the wall text is also the most choreographed. It’s of Puerto Rican native Cynthia Lee Fontaine, one of Austin’s most famous drag queens. She poses formulaically with her hands on her hips. It’s Fontaine’s job to pose, though, and Brainard celebrated that.
His style more patently reveals itself a few portraits down. Musician Kevin Russell, A.K.A. “Shinyribs,” holds his arms out to the camera with open palms suggesting a stop in the action. Russell describes himself as a classic punk rocker who wears his emotion on his sleeve on stage but says he’s pretty inexpressive everywhere else. His portrait evokes that with ease.
The exhibit gains momentum with portraits of Armadillo World Headquarters founder Eddie Wilson and designer Mark English next. That is all but killed, however, by the adjacent library equipment separating the show from its final two portraits.
The penaultimate reaffirms the exhibit’s success. It’s of Richard Overton, the world’s oldest World War II veteran who has lived in Austin for over 69 years. Brainard captures him wearing a war veteran hat with a small grin and his hands in his pockets. It’s the look one makes when their success speaks so loudly words are no longer needed. The shot comes together with those before it to remind you just how diverse and unique Austin’s cultural roots are. With this, the exhibit sends a message that there really is no criteria for success in this town.
Although the location on the sixth floor is a little bewildering, the images belong in the Central Library. Brainard displays those who have shaped Austin’s culture in a building meant to cultivate minds that will do so in the future. He brings out the character in his subjects, allowing the portraits to capture the personality of the city. With this, one walks away with a closer connection to what makes this city so “weird.”
Austin Originals, Portraits of the People That Shape Our City will be on display until May