Artist Spotlight: Tim McKenna
If there was a contest for the most interesting man in the world, photographer Tim McKenna would almost certainly be in the running.
For starters, Tim and his wife Julie live in the middle of nowhere in the wilds of Big Bend about 17 miles from Terlingua, Texas. Their home is an off-the-grid set-up that he built himself out of shipping containers, powered with solar, complete with water catchment devices.
He is an accomplished photographer, and he shares breathtaking images from his corner of the world on his Instagram and Facebook pages. His work is displayed in galleries in Terlingua and Alpine and his images from Big Bend have been viewed in the Bullock State History Museum and around the world. Recently he donated use of several of his works for display at the newly remodeled high school in Alpine, Texas. The beautiful images were enlarged for murals, where they will no doubt inspire students for years to come. He posted about that on Facebook, too.
He loves living in Big Bend, and the story of how he got there has been a lifetime in the making.
His first visit to Big Bend happened in 1972, after he left the Army as the Vietnam War was winding down. He visited again the following year and was awestruck by the wide-open spaces of the region. But life got in the way, and he wouldn’t visit again for another 38 years.
He started his professional career in a Houston photo lab, where his lifelong interest in photography took hold. He worked as a professional photographer in a studio, and then for Neiman-Marcus, while also running a commercial tropical plant business. He moved to Austin and took an entry level job as a bank teller, but soon worked his way up in the banking world, eventually taking on the number two role for a bank west of Austin.
He decided to learn how to sail, and after reading every book on the subject in every branch of the Austin Public Library, he and his wife bought a sailing boat. They got involved in the Austin Yacht Club, and won a trophy in the first sailing race they ever entered. He also continued to use his photography skills, writing stories and selling photos to sailing magazines.
And then his landlord decided to sell the house they were living in, and it was time to make a move. A chance encounter in a marine supply store led to the purchase of a yacht and his next life adventure: selling everything they had and moving into a life on the water.
Tim learned how to scuba dive and became a PADI-certified dive instructor. He worked for the City of Austin doing scientific research on the endangered salamanders in Barton Springs and helped maintain an archeological site in Spring Lake in San Marcos. He also was certified as a level five sailing instructor for the American Sailing Association. His wife worked in the travel industry at Apple Computers in Austin. They lived this somewhat idyllic, and always interesting life on a boat for a dozen years.
And then his son moved out to Big Bend.
“We visited several times in 2010, and we ended up buying five acres of land outside of Terlingua,” said Tim. “On the way home to Austin after a Christmas visit, we were in tears because we didn’t want to leave. So, we decided we had one more adventure left in us.”
The intrepid couple once again sold just about everything they had, including the yacht they lived on, and several boats they had accumulated over the years. They started out camping out of their truck, and then added a portable kitchen with a canopy over it and cinder blocks and plywood for a floor. Little by little, they constructed their off-the-grid home in the Chihuahuan Desert.
“We started with five acres and then it was ten, and now it’s right at a hundred,” he said. “It’s been overgrazed by cattle, sheep and goats, and we’re committed to restoring the land to what it once was.”
The majority of the images he captures and shares are taken right out his front door.
“I started posting what I thought was a nice photo every day to make everybody’s world a little better,” said Tim. “That led to more followers on both Facebook and Instagram, and people started to take notice.”
He now has thousands of followers, and his work is widely shared on a variety of social media pages, including on Friends of Big Bend National Park.
He donates work to the National Park Service and local charities, and is especially proud of the work he did with Big Bend Ranch State Park that led to its designation as an International Dark Sky Park.
“Big Bend Ranch park staff asked me to donate my time to produce two studies of the night sky for the Dark Sky application,” said Tim. “These studies are individual time exposures of the night sky later stitched together to cover 360-degree views from two locations to demonstrate the near total darkness devoid of unnatural light within the park. I was very honored and proud when I later learned that the park had achieved this designation and that I was allowed to have a small part in that endeavor.”
The Borderlands Research Institute is pleased to feature the work of artists like Tim McKenna who are inspired by the landscapes, night skies, and the wildlife of West Texas. The Borderlands Research Institute Big Bend Artists for Conservation initiative aims to inspire conservation through art, and McKenna is the latest artist to be featured.
“I’m on board with anything that helps conserve this beautiful part of Texas,” said Tim. “This area is so unique and fragile, and we’ve really tried to minimize our footprint out here. Anything that we can do to conserve what we love is something that I would always aspire to and want to support.”
“On New Year’s Eve in 2015 we were greeted that morning by a blanket of snow here in the Big Bend. It is amazing what a different perspective on the desert world that creates for the photographer. Made me feel just like a child filled with wonder opening a present on Christmas morning. Sometimes luck plays into my work with a strong hand, and everything just falls into place in that fraction of a second after the camera shutter is triggered. In this image, a pair of house finches perch together on an agave with their red and brown plumage making the perfect contrast to the green of the agave and the pure white background of the fresh snowfall. This image just makes me feel happy. It has turned out to be my most popular photo and I am honored that it was one of my photographs featured in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum’s Big Bend exhibit and in the Big Bend National Park’s 2018 calendar. It is also now in other public and private collections around the world.”
“I am blessed with a photographer’s dream of a wife, Julie. Not only is she an organizational wiz at handling the daily management of my photography business along with her full-time day job but she also has a keen eye for beauty and the patience of a saint. I cannot begin to count the times she has spotted something of interest and called my attention to it while having the patience to wait patiently, never rushing me for sometimes hours, while I attempt to capture an image of the beauty she has pointed out to me. In this image we were traveling back to our ranch about 20 miles north of Terlingua when she spotted this rainbow over Big Bend National Park that I hadn’t even noticed. I safely pulled off of Hwy 118 and Julie was ready with the camera turned on and lens cap removed and handed it to me as I slid out of the door of our truck. Not a moment too soon, I cleared the vehicle and was able to capture only a couple of quick images of the rainbow before it faded away in the light of the setting sun. This image was featured in this year’s 2022 Big Bend National Park’s calendar and is one of my personal favorites.”
“Part of the allure of photography for me is that the learning and the always “fleeting” goal of perfecting the craft of making a photographic image remains, even after all of my 64 years of experience with cameras. As long as I can hold a camera I will never stop learning. If given two lifetimes I would still never be unable to learn the half of it. In this image, the giant leap of modern technology gave me the edge I needed to capture this dramatic moment in crisp, split-second time. In the 1950s and 1960s film camera shutter speeds were, relative to today’s shutter speeds, very slow. 1/125th of a second was commonly the fastest shutter speed on a household camera. The first SLR film camera I used in the 1970s had a top end shutter speed of 1/1,000th of a second. Also, film sensitivity was rather limited to a maximum of 400 ASA. Leap forward to the modern digital age and there is the big difference in the capability for today’s photographers. In order to capture this image I set my camera’s sensitivity to 4000 ISO (ten times more sensitive than 1970s film) and my shutter speed to the mind-boggling 1/4,000th of a second. Who knows what amazing innovations in photography will be available to tomorrow’s photographers?”
“We were blessed with making friends with a local writer some years back by the name of Beth Garcia, who has since passed on. In one of her novels, “One Bloody Shirt at a Time,” Beth’s words captured better than any other writer I have ever read, my feelings about the beautiful vistas of the Big Bend when she wrote…”In the Big Bend of Texas, nothing is as it appears. Bizarre shapes and show off colors materialize as light floods the landscape. Things gleam for a while then darken, change shape, move, and eventually disappear as the sun cuts its path across the sky. By the time darkness settles, you wonder if the whole scene wasn’t just a trick of your imagination.” This image was captured again from Hwy 118 just a few miles north of our home. I was honored beyond measure when I was asked by Rachel Maxwell, art teacher at Alpine High School, to donate this image and also the “Rainbow Over the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park” to grace the walls of the new Alpine High School as 7×11 foot murals beautifully reproduced by Printco, also of Alpine. To be able to inspire young students’ minds in photography is, I feel, one of my most worthy accomplishments as a photographer.”
“When I stepped out onto our front porch this morning at sunrise, I was greeted with the quintessential fragrance of the desert…damp creosote bush. Looming in the distance were the silhouettes of Emory Peak and the South Rim of Big Bend National Park and in the foreground lay a blanket of ground fog. The message was clear though…all is well with the world and life is good here in the Big Bend of Texas this morning.”
Since 2007, the Borderlands Research Institute has encouraged effective land stewardship of the Chihuahuan Desert. Housed at Sul Ross State University, the Borderlands Research Institute builds on a long-lasting partnership with private landowners, the university’s Natural Resource Management Program, cooperating state, federal, and non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders. Through research, education, and outreach, the Borderlands Research Institute is helping to conserve the last frontier of Texas and the Southwest.