Jason Lee’s Galveston was a long time coming. I preordered as soon as I heard about it, within days of the announcement on the @filmphotographic Insta, if I recall, and it was delayed several times by the pandemic. It’s here now, and it’s pretty much everything I expected.
I saw Lee’s work for A Plain View at a show in Fort Worth, and, as I mentioned in my review of the book, mostly enjoyed the show more than the book. I didn’t buy the Oklahoma book, but did enjoy the show and the belated gallery guide issue of Refueled. And so despite my sort of lackluster thoughts on the book version of A Plain View, I jumped on the Galveston book early and scored a signed copy.
In May, 2020, the Galveston Historical Foundation commissioned Lee to photograph the island for the Foundation’ 150th anniversary. Lee traveled to Galveston in November 2020, and spent 2 weeks with Raymond Molinar, Chris Brown, and Will Gillham, roaming the island and making photographs. A year or so later, and Galveston is the result.
I don’t know how many shots Lee took over the 2 weeks. The book contains 98 photographs: 33 color and 2 black & white images in roughly 4×5 aspect ratio, and 63 black & white image in 2×3 aspect ratio. Most of my images from Galveston, taken over 2 or 3 short visits, over several years, feature the beach and ocean, and it’s nice to see some of the rest of the island. Lee focused on his usual: early- and mid-20th century structures in various states of repair; older model cars; and similar. You can tell it’s Galveston, more or less, by the images of sandy and rocky beaches, oil derricks out with pleasure boaters and swimmers nearby, and the low-height, hurricane-hardened structures that proliferate.
I enjoyed the gallery version of A Plain View more than the book version; I enjoyed the Oklahoma show enough, and didn’t buy the book; I sorta wish I could see an exhibition of Galveston, as I suspect it would be stronger than the book, if only for the more ruthless edit. Two weeks to produce 98 images… Lee is a better photographer than me, and no question that he knows what he’s doing. The rather generous edit (I don’t know how many rolls or boxes of film he shot. 4×5 sheets come in 10 and 20 packs, and used to come in 50 packs, so he shot at least, say 4 or 5 10-sheet boxes of color; he shot at least two rolls of black & white 35mm, and I suspect more, though there are a few frames that appear to be in a sort of panning sequence. Given the compressed time frame (2 weeks), a hardcover book of nearly 100 images is rather major. The Americans was nearly 30,000 frames over a year and a couple of Guggenheim’s to get to an 83 shot book, though comparing Galveston to The Americans, and therefore Lee to Frank is probably not entirely fair.
Galveston opens with a nice and informative history of the island by Will Gillham. I knew Galveston had a long history, but was really unaware of just how long and storied it was. From pirate colony and hideout to major port to capital of Texas to nearly being wiped out by a hurricane, the 1800s were a hopping time for the little island. Since then, and since shipping companies dredged a canal up to Houston, shipping dried up, and it’s mostly a tourist destination now.* I’m not sure if Lee’s pictures, and the book, will add to Galveston’s economy or historical interest. Perhaps, and I hope so. It’s not a travel guide; Lee didn’t go to the pier and ride the rollercoaster (or didn’t include photographs if he did); he didn’t photograph the 1960s and 70s resorts that line Seawall Boulevard for a mile or two; he did include a few pictures of the beach, the water, the once-brightly colored beach condos and things, and it’s seems mostly to be the residential side of Galveston, rather than the tourist side, and it’s nice to see.
Overall, I rate Galveston 3.5 stars.
I’ve often wanted to stop and wander the town, see something other than the beach, but I’ve never had a good reason to. I’m not sure if Galveston makes me want to visit again, and for a longer time, or not… I do want to ride the little rollercoaster on that pier, whatever it is, and there’s a walk under the sea marine life thing that I’d like to do, and it would be fun to explore a bit… these are all pre-pandemic thoughts. What am I thinking. If and when I go to Galveston again, I will be avoiding people and interiors and all, as we did when we went in the summer of 2021, and then I’m not sure we actually even stopped in Galveston…
Anyway. At time of writing, the Galveston Historical Society and Film Photographic had copies available. Film Photographic printed 2500 copies… but Lee books do tend to sell out. His Oklahoma book, In the Gold Dust Rush sold out quickly (no idea of the edition size); A Plain View came out in an edition of 1800 softcover and 200 fancy hardcover, and it sold out very quickly. So if you’re interested, jump on Galveston with a quickness.
I received this book in mid-January 2022 and jumped on a review with a quickness. But why? Lee doesn’t need my help to sell books, and if he did, I don’t know how much help I would be. My handful of readers may benefit from actually being able to find a copy for the low, low SRP of $60, if they even have any interest in Galveston. After a recent communication with one of my regular readers, I realize that I don’t owe the photographers or publishers (or Charcoal Books) anything: I’m a paying customer. I owe my readers something, insofar as I have any readers, but what? I owe you my honest thoughts, however rambling. Perhaps I owe you the opportunity to find books when they’re still available new, or bring your attention to books that are worth picking up, hopefully for cheap, and dissuade you from seeking out books you can’t afford. I know some people benefit from the unboxing videos in this way.
Anyway. This is a long way of saying I wish I hadn’t rushed this. There was no real reason to. Apologies, and I hope it doesn’t read as rushed…
*For south Texas ocean/beach vacations, do yourself a favor and go a bit farther south: Corpus Christi, South Padre, etc. have far less shipping and oil-extraction damage—Galveston beaches regularly feature dead fish and balls of tar, and the water is a dingy, brownish shade of blue. The sand further south is whiter and fluffier, and the water actually looks like something you’d want to dip more than a cautious toe into.