The Writing Traveler: When photographs are better than words

Gerald Crawford, my traveling sidekick during my time at Southern Living Magazine, a good friend ever since.

Gerald Crawford’s world lay on the far side of his lens. Nothing else mattered. He seldom knew where we traveled. He didn’t care. 

I was the word man.

I wandered around the South with a Big Chief tablet and a nineteen-cent ballpoint pen.

Gerald Crawford was the professional.

He was the chief photographer.

He carried five-thousand-dollars-worth of camera equipment.

Not really.

I toted the cameras.

He made the photographs beautiful, but he couldn’t tote and shoot at the same time.

He was the reason I wound up as travel editor at Southern Living Magazine in the first place.

During my days as travel flack for the Texas Tourist Development Agency, I brought in travel editors from the nation’s top newspapers and magazines and introduced them to the historic, scenic, and recreational wonders of Texas.

Southern Living didn’t have a travel editor, so the magazine sent Crawford, and he wandered with me from Big Bend of Texas to the rugged peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains.

The old church in the ghost town of Presidio, taken when Crawford first came to Texas.

When the magazine decided to hire a travel editor, Crawford told his editor, “There’s a guy in Texas who writes pretty good.”

“Think he’d come?”

“He’s crazy enough to come.”

“It’s a new magazine,” the editor said, “We might not make it.”

“Won’t bother him.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve seen him fall down mountains.” Crawford laughed. “He’s not afraid to hit bottom.”

Thus began a ten-year career of traveling across the South and even into Mexico and the Caribbean for Southern Living. In the beginning, we hung on from month to month, from issue to issue, with broken fingernails.  If we could patch together ninety-six pages with enough advertising to break even, it was a good month. If we made a dollar or two, it was a great month. It meant we would be able to publish one more time.

Life became a series of one more times.

Can’t stop us till they kill us,” I told Crawford.

“Are they shooting at us?”

“Haven’t hit us yet.”

“Where are we headed?”

“Does it matter?”

It never mattered for Crawford. Just get him there early enough to shoot at sunrise and stay long enough to shoot at sunset, and he didn’t care where he was.  It had already been a long, circuitous, and precarious, journey for a barefoot country boy from Webb, Alabama.

Crawford wading among the snakes and through the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana.

Crawford began tinkering with cameras during his time in the Air National Guard and honed his craft on the fly and on the job as the first chief photographer for Southern Living Magazine. He shot a great majority of the publication’s travel articles and would photograph more than a hundred covers. His name became synonymous with the South.

Crawford was the consummate photographer. His long hair draped around his shoulders. His beard was thick. He had kind, gentle eyes and always wore a smile even when he wanted to kill me, which was often.  He wore sandals when he felt like Jesus, boots when he thought he was John Wayne, and tennis shoes when he wanted to run. Crawford didn’t wear a lot of tennis shoes.

His world lay on the far side of his lens. Nothing else mattered. He seldom knew where we traveled. He didn’t care. Tell him what you wanted photographed, then duck. If ten shots were good, a hundred were better. Crawford ran more film through a camera than Cecil B. Demille.

On one occasion, Crawford was lost in the desert, wedged among the rocks while rain poured from a sky turned black and lightning danced around him.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Might be a rainbow.”

“We might get killed,” I said.

“At least, I’ll have the rainbow,” he said.

He waded through swamps like the Atchafalaya with snakes hanging from the trees around him.

He paddled rowboats to Mexico. He sailed on cruise ships. He sang backstage of the Grand Ole Opry. A rodeo judge jerked him from the path of a charging bull. Seen through his wide-angle lens, the bull looked a hundred yards away. He was close enough to spit on Crawford and probably did. He found his way to Cajun beer joints where the owner stretched chicken wire between the crowd and stage so drunks couldn’t hit the band with the beer bottles they threw. We flew millions of miles in planes belonging to airlines that no longer exist.

“We’ll sit on the back seat,” I told him.

“Why?”

“You never hear of a plane backing into a mountain,” I said.

We even latched Crawford with rope beneath the wing of a tow plane so he could get better shots of a glider in flight.

“Be careful,” managing editor John Logue told him.

“Don’t worry. I won’t fall.”

“We’re not worried about you,” Logue said. “But that is an expensive camera you’re carrying.”

The plane landed.

We had to untie Crawford’s hair.

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