Our first installment of Focus on BBQ features photos shot by Austin photographer Darren Carroll. This launches an occasional series that will showcase great barbecue images shot by top photographers in the country. Most are friends of the Posse, which was founded in 2009 by a core group of writers & photographers at The Dallas Morning News. Over the years, we've had a number of contributing shooters, ranging from top commercial, news and sports photographers, including several Pulitzer Prize winners.
Darren has an impressive mix of editorial and advertising clients. You might know his work from Sports Illustrated, he's a top sports shooter as well. His photos have appeared on magazine pages ranging from from S.I. to Smithsonian, Golf Digest to Garden & Gun, and dozens of others, also in advertising campaigns, album covers, and corporate publications.
A native New Yorker, Darren moved to Austin over 20 years ago to attend the University of Texas, pursuing a master's degree in journalism. He planned to return to the east coast after school, but like many people who move to Austin, he never left.
Last weekend, Darren & his son Jake, 12, joined Gary Jacobson & me for an impressive lunch at Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew. The conversation centered around sports & barbecue, of course. Like Darren, most of our sports photographer friends also have a deep passion for hitting the great BBQ joints in Texas.
How long have you been shooting & eating on the Texas BBQ Trail?
I've been eating on the trail since I first moved to Austin in 1994. Of course I had no idea it was "The Trail" back then; only much later did I realize the significance of what I was in the middle of. But a professor at UT pointed me toward Louie Mueller and Kreuz when I first moved down here (from Washington DC and New York) and I was hooked. As for shooting, my first actual assignment involving barbecue was for a travel story on Austin and Texas Football for Sports Illustrated about 15 years ago--they sent me over to John Mueller's old place on Manor Rd., and I waltzed in there unannounced, with a camera and no clue who John Mueller was, and just asked if I could take some pictures. I'll have to try and dig those up. . . Heck I've been around long enough to remember when John had a place out on a side street in Bastrop (I used to live out there) that he ran as a one-man shop. And I know I have pictures of my son, Jake, sitting in his infant carrier in that gorgeous light in the front hallway of Smitty's in Lockhart from 2004, so I had certainly gained an appreciation of the photographic potential of that place by then.
You live in Austin, the most competitive BBQ market in the universe. How has it changed over the past 5 or 6 years?
Well there are far more experienced people than myself out there, and I'm certainly no expert, but to my mind the biggest change I've seen has been that barbecue has become a "thing" -- and by that I mean something do be done for the sake of doing it, as opposed to a thing to be tasted, enjoyed, and appreciated. I can remember when a bunch of sports photographer friends would be in Houston, for example, for a baseball playoff game or something, and we would meet in Luling, eat at City Market, and then go up to Lockhart and hit Smitty's, Kreuz, and Black's, all in a 3-hour time period -- and for the next two weeks all we would talk about was who had the better brisket, sausage, pork chop, atmosphere, hazy light (we're photographers, after all!) etc. -- you get the idea. Nowadays to hear (many) people talk it's not about that -- the badge of honor is not that you've gained an appreciation for the pitmaster's art and what they do, or that different places can offer different specialties and experiences. The badge of honor now seems to be that you can tell all of your friends back home that you stood in line for 3 hours at the place they saw on the Travel Channel the other night.
What's your go-to joint in BBQ Austin?
This may be the easiest question (barbecue-related or otherwise) that I've ever had to answer. Stiles Switch. Without a doubt. The brisket is out-of-this-world good, and everything else on the menu is pretty damned amazing, too (try the "Notorious R.I.B." one day when they're serving it). But it has several other things going for it, too -- first, it's indoors (and therefore air-conditioned). If you come at peak times, the lines can be long but they're not unbearable. You can still show up for lunch at lunchtime and be out of there in an hour at most. And notice I said "peak hours," plural? That's right -- they're also open for dinner. Which means there's not the dreaded fear of them selling out of something, especially during lunch. But perhaps the best thing about the restaurant itself is that it's an actual restaurant. There are rotating daily specials (prime rib, for example, or a rotation of daily sandwich creations with a creative take on the basics, that kind of thing). And they have real tables and chairs. And music. And a parking lot. It's the kind of place I can take clients or groups of friends from out of town to and not make them wait in line for a couple hours and/or sit out in the hot sun at a picnic table. But even when I'm by myself, just running errands around town, there is nothing in the world that beats dropping in for their simple, sliced brisket sandwich with the little added touch of a burnt end laid across the top.
Outside of Austin, what's your go-to BBQ joint?
There are so many good places it's hard to say. Snow's is a religious experience, but I can't really think of a place that I can only get to on one particular day a week as a "go to." Killen's in Houston is fantastic, but I'm not there often enough to say I know it well. I'm back and forth to Dallas on I-35 quite a bit, and I never miss an opportunity to stop at Miller's in Belton whenever I can. So I guess that would be it. Aside from the basics, they do a chicken salad (yes, a chicken salad) that is pretty unbelievable. Give me a cup of that, and three slices of brisket and I'm good to go. But the great thing about being based here and getting to drive around the state to assignments is that there are so many places to try and it gives me an opportunity to keep trying them.
Do you see any similarities between cooking great BBQ & shooting a great photo?
Absolutely. There are no shortcuts in either one if you want to be really, really good at it. It's all about being authentic and nailing the basics and having the innate ability to process them into the finished form; about knowing the craft, first and foremost. In the end, while you might luck your way into a good photo with today's technological crutches, you can't compensate for the ability to recognize, use, and exploit light, composition, and color with an iPhone app or Lightroom slider. And there's no substitute for knowing and living the process when you're cooking -- the physics of fire and smoke, how to create flavor, and putting in the long hours it takes to do it right. You can't bullshit your way into a making a good photograph, and you can't bullshit your way into cooking great barbecue.