Photographer Tony Gleaton takes more than pictures of people .Instead, he tries to capture the essence of his subject's soul in each image.  His style is much like that of the portraitures taken by late-19th century photographers. He painstakingly poses each person, paying close attention to detail and composition.  While his work has been featured in places such as the Smithsonian and the Los Angeles Museum of Art, Gleaton won't take credit for being a good photographer.


"I'm just a guy who takes beauty shots of regular people," he says. "My job is sleeping in the dust or being cold, wet and scared somewhere on the Llano Estacado during a thunderstorm. But, my new mantra for this year is 57 is not 35. The things you could do at 35 aren't as easy at 57."  Gleaton, formerly a photography professor and the artist-in-residence at Texas Tech University's Southwest Collections/Special Collections Library, is a fascinating character in his own rite.


He's traveled across West Texas, Mexico and Central and South America by bicycle or in a beat-up 1972 army ambulance he affectionately refers to as his "RV."  He'll go so far as to live with coca growers in the Sur Yungas of Bolivia or in the bunkhouses of Mexican and Native American   cowboys in order to record ways of living that are disappearing quickly.  "I've lived in so many different places," he says. "I've lived with Indians in the north of Mexico. I've shared an apartment with a stunt guy in the movies.  I've worked as an oil field worker and construction worker in Texas in the '80s. I guess you could say I've had a different kind of life."


His character and his devotion to his work prompted Texas Tech College of Mass Communications professor, Judith Oskam, to record her friend and former colleague in a documentary for PBS. Gleaton still works unofficially for the Southwest Collection and continues working on three of the collection's projects. He's taking images of the Llano Estacado for a project titled "Island in the Sky."  Also, he's completing a series he started in 1980 called "COWBOYS: Reconstructing THE American Myth," which will be published by Texas Tech University Press. He's reworking a third project, originally titled "THE BLACK ROUTE WEST: An Illustrated History Of Lesser Known Facts And Occurrences Throughout The Trans-Mississippi West.”  This was a study of landscapes following the migration of black pioneers, slaves, settlers, scouts, and military from 1528 to 1918. 


Finding his calling


Gleaton says his early life influenced the way he viewed the world.

Born in 1948 to an elementary school teacher and a police officer in Detroit, his family left for sunny California in 1959.

"I'm just a middle class, African-American guy who grew up on the West Coast," Gleaton says. "California at that time was still a lot like the American West. It was a place where you could define yourself. If I had stayed in Detroit, I definitely would have been part of the Motown generation. Instead, I hung out with a bunch of white kids who listened to The Beach Boys, and I became part of the surfer generation."

At 19, Tony joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967. While serving his first tour of duty in Vietnam, he remembers picking up a camera for the first time. "I saw that what I took with the camera was trash," he says. "Then, I put the camera down."


After serving in the Marine Corps, Gleaton returned to California to pursue a degree at University of California at Los Angeles. None of his studies really piqued his interest, he says, and he floundered as he tried to find his calling.

"When I got out of the Marine Corps, I didn't know what I wanted to do, other than sleep with women," he jokes. "You can't get a degree in that, now. I thought I wanted to be something like a forest ranger. I never thought about working in an office."  While at UCLA, Gleaton again picked up a camera for a photography class. A professor told him he had talent. He left UCLA and studied for a semester and a half at the Arts Center School of Design in L.A. before thumbing his way to New York.


"Back in 1977, I hitchhiked to New York City from California to become a fashion photographer," he recalls. "I lived at the Salvation Army in the Bowery until I was able to have enough money to rent an apartment. It was tough. In a way I was Homeless."


Gleaton soured on the fashion world by 1980. He hitchhiked to through northeastern Nevada photographing the cowboys of that area, called buckaroos then he went on to Texas where he met up with a group of black rodeo performers and followed them throughout the Southwest, clicking his shutter as he went. In this first study, soon to be published by Texas Tech University press and called "COWBOYS: Reconstructing an American Myth," he took portraits and photos of black, American Indian, Mexican and white cowboys.  During that time, me met with a Mexican touring rodeo and began shooting photographs. In 1982, he moved to Mexico City, sharing an apartment with a stunt man, and traveled the country for seven years. He lived with the Tarahumara Indians in Northern Mexico, and then moved to Guerrero and Oaxaca.


While in this region 86-92, Gleaton found the inspiration for his most well known study, "Africa's Legacy in Mexico." He pursued and photographed the descendants of black slaves brought to the area by the Spanish in the 1500s to toil in the mines.  This project was toured from 1992 to 1996 by the Smithsonian Institutions Traveling Exhibition Service in the U.S. It traveled to Mexico and Cuba through the Mexican National Council of Art in 1993. Eventually, he expanded the collection in 1996 to include blacks in Central and South America.


Teaching at Texas Tech


In 2002, Gleaton came to Texas Tech University to teach for two years as a visiting professor of photography in the College of Mass Communications.  Eric Strong, the managing director for Texas Tech's Department of Upward Bound Programs, had heard of Gleaton from a rodeo director in Dallas. Gleaton needed to come to Texas to follow the Comanche Trails for a project, and wanted to live in Lubbock.


After seeing Gleaton's work, Strong facilitated Gleaton's arrival.” I was impressed with his work," Gleaton says. "He has a certain kind of genius about him. I like how he shows the dignity and beauty of people who are disadvantaged. One of my callings is to help artists." While teaching rudimentary photography, Gleaton said he tried to teach his students to please themselves with their work before pleasing him.

          

"I teach in a different way," he said. "One of the things I tried to teach my students was to trust themselves. They would try to do what I wanted them to do, and I would say 'No.' It was amazing the things they came up with."

But research appealed more to Gleaton than teaching. He offered to become a photographer for the Southwest collection instead.


Bill Tydeman, assistant dean for special projects and former director for TTU's Southwest Collection/, says Gleaton's work earned him a position in 2004 as the collection's artist-in-residence. Tydeman created the position for Gleaton.

After all, Tydeman says, Gleaton's photos spoke for themselves. The collection has a Tony Gleaton archive, and Gleaton continues photographing the Llano Estacado for a project commissioned by the organization. "He's one of the most important people trying to document African-American culture in North and South America," Tydeman says. "He's a rare combination of a visually gifted artist whose power of seeing and imagination is conditioned by a very bright intelligence and an understanding of society and history.


"He's also very selective in what he wants to go in his personal archive. He won't hold onto prints if they don't work. I'm always after him, because he's thrown things away that he didn't like. As historians, we want to keep the entire record. We want the photos that work as well as those the ones that don't."  While age has slowed him down, Gleaton says the drive to photograph hasn't died. He's still willing to set up camp in his ambulance and take landscapes of areas where blacks migrated West or images that capture the experience of living on the Llano.



Judith Oskam, an associate professor of Mass Communictions, found the perfect subject for a documentary in friend and colleague, Tony Gleaton.  So, she decided to turn the lens on Gleaton's personality and style of photography.

As she got to know Gleaton, Oskam says she wanted to capture his essence for television in much the same way as Gleaton took photographs. For a year, she followed him as he took photographs and interviewed him numerous times for a 30-minute documentary, titled "Images of Tony Gleaton," that was distributed by American Public Television.


"His photos were beautiful, and his personality was interesting, to put it mildly," Oskam says. "He's like an African-American Shrek. He's gruff, but loveable once you cut through the façade. I was intrigued as a video person by how he did his fieldwork. I really understood his spirituality and how he views his work."  Oskam says she tried to create a documentary that captured part of Gleaton's spirituality as well as show viewers what makes him tick as an artist.

"He always says he was born to be a photographer," Oskam says. "This is what he was meant to do, and that's how he lives his life. That's always interesting to see someone who's living for his work. That's unusual to see in our materialistic culture."

Vistas magazine

          -Unpublished Article 2007-

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