News and Features

Twain's Lost Play Finally Comes to Town

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Mark Shum plays the lead role in Is He Dead?

In 1898, Mark Twain wrote a play called Is He Dead? But the play was never produced in his lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t discovered until 2002. Tonight, WaterTower Theatre in Addison stages the regional premiere of the play, a century after Twain’s death. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports:

  • KERA radio story:
  • Online version:

In Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, a struggling French painter desperately wants to marry his girlfriend, but he doesn’t have any money. So he comes up with a plan to stage his own death to drive up the price of his paintings. In order to cash in, he poses as his imaginary twin sister.

A man going undercover in drag was a fairly novel concept when the play was written. But since then we’ve all seen Some Like it Hot, Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire.

James Lemons is directing Is He Dead? at WaterTower Theatre. He agrees a man wearing makeup is no longer enough to keep us laughing – or interested.

LEMONS: “You can only use that device so many times before it becomes old and tired. Or you just become used to seeing the guy in the dress and the wig with the funny voice – what else is he going to do?”

Enter David Ives.

The playwright adapted Twain’s original manuscript into the version that was first produced on Broadway in 2007. In his adaptation, Ives trimmed the number of characters and the running time, further developed the remaining characters and modernized Twain’s original language.

But he didn’t have to do much to make the language work for the modern ear. Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the Twain scholar and Stanford English professor who discovered Is He Dead? while doing research in 2002.

FISHKIN: “I often found as I was going over different versions of the script that when there was a line that just struck me as too contemporary to have been Twain’s and I was about to pencil it and query it and say would he have said this, I went back to the original manuscript and it had been a line that Twain had written. He really wrote a language that we still speak.”

In one scene, the painter – now dressed as his twin, Daisy – is doing a wild can-can dance with a group of men. When his mourning girlfriend, Marie, walks in the room, she can’t understand how a man’s sister can be so joyous so shortly after his death.

MARIE: “Oh Daisy, how could you act so?”

DAISY: “Oh, poor Marie. It wasn’t my natural self that was dancing. When I’m grieved, I get so emotional … You know.”

MARIE: “Oh. Then, it was only … womanly hysterics?”

DAISY: “Womanly hysterics – that was it!”

MARIE: “And the others … they were having womanly hysterics, too?”

DAISY: “Every blessed one of them. They’re all so full of youth and high spirits … You know.”

LEMONS “If you’re just listening or reading the dialogue, there are certainly Twainisms in there – you hear his voice even through an adaptation – especially the throwaway lines that you hear and you think. ‘Oh, that’s Twain! There you go.’”

One of Lemons’ favorite Twainisms in the play is “How dare you rip off the mustache of the woman I’m going to marry!” You’ll have to pour through the original and the adaptation to tell whether or not that line came from Twain or Ives.

Which probably wouldn’t bother Twain much. He knew the play wasn’t presentable as is and left instructions that someone would need to clean up after him to make it workable.

Still, Fishkin says that comic foundation was there all along.

FISHKIN: “Twain said that, ‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever,’ And I think that Twain’s humor always has a serious ethical dimension beneath the laughter, beneath the humor. And that’s part of what makes it very much alive today.”

In fact, it might be more relevant now than it was in 1898. At its heart, Is He Dead? is about a guy who craves fame and fortune but doesn’t necessarily have the talent to get there. Sound familiar?

LEMONS: “In the age of Britney and the age of Paris Hilton, we’re accustomed to celebrity and scandal. And in this play, the characters create their own scandal and make it up. Oftentimes, just by spreading false rumors and false lies, they’re able to give themselves some instant celebrity in order to make this money.”

In that sense, maybe it’s prophetic that Is He Dead? is finally coming to life.

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Scholar Discusses Twain's Long Lost Play

Imagine if you had spent your entire life listening to and thinking about the Beatles, and you somehow came across a recording of theirs that no one else had heard before. That’s basically what happened to Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The Stanford University professor and Mark Twain scholar was researching the writer when she came across a drawer full of his discarded plays. That’s where she found Is He Dead?, which WaterTower Theater stages beginning tonight. (Click here to listen to my KERA radio story about the play.) During a phone conversation earlier this week, Prof. Fishkin discussed finding the play and her hand in preserving Twain’s legacy:

Art&Seek: What do you remember thinking when you first came across Is He Dead?

Shelley Fisher Fishkin: I was eating my scholarly spinach so to speak – I had not realized there was an entire drawer full of plays by Mark Twain when I came across it looking up something else, and I decided I should read through the whole drawer. Twain did not have much of a reputation as a playwright, so I wasn’t expecting much. And in fact, there were a lot of plays that weren’t very interesting in there. But by the time I got to the end of the drawer, the penultimate play was Is He Dead? … and I started reading it and I began to laugh out loud in the archives. It struck me as a play that was really remarkably funny, there was some brilliant scenes in it – scenes that I could really imagine seeing onstage. I realized that it needed work, it needed trimming, there were too many actors, there were a lot of things that made it more complicated than it had to be, but I thought it had an awful lot of potential. And I decided that Twain, who had really wanted to see it produced in his lifetime and wasn’t able to have it produced, deserved to have it produced in our time.

A&S: Aside from fulfilling Twain’s wishes, why do you think it’s important that Is He Dead? is seen by a modern audience?

S.F.F: There’s several reasons. One is that it’s representative of the fact that Twain’s later years were not all dark. There’s this stereotype of Twain as someone who grows increasingly pessimistic and misanthropic towards the last 12 years of his life or so. Well, this play is a celebration of male friendship, it’s a celebration of human agency and of a group of enterprising friends outwitting an unscrupulous villain, and it’s a very uplifting and fun play that comes out of Twain’s supposedly dark years. So it shows us that his dark years were not all dark. It also is a play that he wrote when he was coming out of what was probably the darkest period of his life, just after the death of his daughter Susie – a year or so after she died. He’s just beginning to come out of mourning, and he also has just learned that he has come out of bankruptcy. Literally the week that he comes out of bankruptcy, he sits down to write this play, which happens to be a play about how a group of friends outwits an unscrupulous creditor who is determined to bankrupt them. So it’s significance in terms of his personal life and in terms of our understanding of the trajectory of his attitudes towards life and his attitudes toward comedy and art.

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Friday Morning Roundup

ERYKAH EVERYWHERE: Hope ya like Erykah Badu, ’cause ya can’t get away from her these days. (That’s understandable – she does have a new album to promote.) Where to begin … Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway tells dallasnews.com he’s looking into putting tougher rules on the book to guard against people making for-profit films without a permit in the city. Quick scores quite a coup by having her on its cover this week (which was planned before the video dust-up). She takes part in pitchfork.com’s 5-10-15-20 feature, in which artists talk about what they were listening to at those ages. You might be interested to know that she was a big grunge fan at 20. Still want more? She’ll be at Good Records on Saturday.

CAST YOUR VOTE: The Dallas Museum of Art is letting you decide the musical acts who will play on the Late Night Main Stage on April 16. Artists around town submitted videos of them performing, and the top six are posted for your perusal and votes. If Summer Ames doesn’t make it, I’ll eat my hat.

SING, SING, SING: That arbiter of opera, W magazine, has come up with its list of the Top 5 Operas to See This Spring. Making the cut: Fort Worth Opera’s Before Night Falls. One of the reasons the magazine’s anonymous opera blogger lists to see the show: “baritone cutie Wes Mason.”

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Q&A: Outsider Artists at UTA

Guest blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities and Cultural Studies at Brookhaven College School of the Arts.

Intermezzo, 2008, by Benito Huerta

Intermezzo, 2008, by Benito Huerta

While many have flocked to the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, the art scene down the highway is vibrant with the creative influence of Texas artist Benito Huerta, Associate Professor and Director/Curator of The Gallery at The University of Texas at Arlington. As an artist, Huerta’s imagery in his paintings and visual imprints cross boundaries. Through the use of textures, symbols in the imagination, geopolitical arena and daily culture, he offers variations of our human experiences and explores the very values that collectively bind us together.

I spoke with Huerta as well as with his colleague Marilyn Jolly – Associate Professor of Painting and curator of the current exhibition “Outside Influences: Michael Noland and Fred Stonehouse” – along with the two artists about their collecting and creativity. Huerta is one of our North Texas cultural influences and shares his insight about working in the Texas art landscape:

Tina Aguilar: I am interested in identity and iconography as it is represented in culture/art – your art – and value of heritage, but in a deeper sense that value of art and being creative. How we deal with the world around us: internally and literally, because place-making is an inherent part of our human condition. Can you talk to me about this?

Benito Huerta: I grew up with a Mexican background within an Anglo culture, and my experiences deal with these areas as well as what it means to be an artist. You can find similar meanings in both cultures, yet they may look a little different you can find similar meanings in both cultures, even with differences, and as a result your perspective considers new ideas and new ways of thinking. My images incorporate parts of me and the world around me, like the Loteria cards for examples, which are a version of Bingo, Mexican style. I decided to create some of my own interpretations and have used them in my paintings. There are connections to border issues and the dualities found between the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. One of the things that I have been asked to do is to curate Latino or Chicano shows, but I am also an artist. I have tried to mix things up within the gallery setting, and this is important — to have a range of work and individuals sharing their styles and expression no matter what their background. As a curator and an artist, I am always thinking and rethinking and playing with a range of ideas.

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It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Broadway Actor

The Dallas Theater Center announced that it’s cast Matt Cavenaugh in the title role of its revival of the Broadway musical, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, opening June 18. The Arkansas native starred as Tony in the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story, has played in Grey Gardens on Broadway and appeared in the soap, As The World Turns for 2006-2007. And he’s married to the actress, Jenny Powers.

But to give you an idea why he might play Superman, we give you two images of him, the Clark Kent one and, well, you know.

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Art&Seek Q&A: Filmmaker Laura Tabor-Huerta

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Laura Tabor-Huerta was a regular fixture on the North Texas punk rock and new wave underground scene back in the 80s and 90s. She spent a decade documenting the bands, the musicians, the fans and the “scene” on video. Saturday night, Laura’s documentary, DFW Punk, screens at 1919 Hemphill in Fort Worth. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find some of those punk rock stars in attendance, which will make for a really interesting Q&A after the screening.

Speaking of Q&A’s, we caught up with Laura via e-mail recently to chat with her about the film, the idea behind it and more, as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: How did you first get interested in punk music and especially punk bands based in North Texas.

Laura Tabor-Huerta: I was into rock and metal music in high school. Suddenly, on the radio, new wave music started to be played and a little punk, and I guess the genres won me over. Very little information was available about punk music and any tiny picture, clipping, article or rumor was appreciated during that pre-Internet time. I was a fine arts major at UT-Arlington in the early 80s, and by word of mouth heard of some local punk clubs. I started driving over to see the bands and experience the scene, which was bigger than just music. It was about experimenting. Some did it with drugs, fashion, art or music.

A&S: When did you decide to start documenting these bands and artists with video, and what was your inspiration to do so?

L.T.H: It was while I was still in college that I decided to make a documentary, but I was living the life too much and couldn’t really organize such a big project at that time. Later, in 1995 or so, I finally had a steady full-time job and started buying equipment and getting a crew together to work on it. I started by writing a list from memory of all the people, clubs and events that I could remember and started calling those people, which led to finding others. In 1997, I started interviewing bands and musicians on the weekends, which continued over the next year or two. My inspiration was that I knew it had been a really special time for me and a small minority of people. As I got older and more non-Texans began moving to Texas with the attitude of “all you hillbillies are behind the times,” I realized that many people did not know that a punk scene thrived here back then. I thought it would be an important, accessible story, because I lived it and the subject matter suited itself to a low budget, which was all I could afford.

A&S: How much footage was left on the cutting room floor? Enough for a sequel?

L.T.H.: Not so much a sequel as a big ol’ extras disc! Someone else can make a sequel about the later 90s to today’s Dallas scene. Of course, it might be a real tearjerker, because I’ve heard that it’s really a dead scene in Dallas now. I have a lot of interviews and old band footage that I think a niche group might really appreciate having. I even considered having multiple DVDs and offer them as burn to order. We’ll see. Some of the most compelling footage is an off-shot of the punk scene; the skinheads. But I have to find a way to protect them, because everyone has a right to privacy and making mistakes when you are young. I would want to show the essence of that time for them.

A&S: What is one of your most memorable punk shows?

L.T.H.: Well, one of my most positive memories of the DFW punk scene was not of a specific show, rather a feeling from all of it. An average night out to see a local band was such a comfortable experience. Walking with friends, drinking a six-pack and wandering around the Twilight Room area or Deep Ellum with the intent to have fun, meet some interesting people and find some band that you’ve never heard of before. It was really wonderful.

One of the most memorable negative memories I have was at the Exploited show back in 1988, I think. I remember going with a new friend, and he was wearing a jacket with a peace sign on the back. That was about the worst thing you could do, style-wise back then, and I remember skinheads standing behind him spitting all over his back.

A&S: How has the film been received at the various film festivals, and where has it screened?

L.T.H.: Each festival has been a little different. At the Dallas Video Festival, I screened a different version than the current one. It was not as tight but seemed well-received because everyone was starved for some footage and information from that time, I think. In Los Angeles, at the Don’t Knock the Rock Music and Film Festival, it was well-received by Allison Anders, who picked it to screen there, but I think attendance was a bit down because the listing for the screening had no image, so the two film listings (mine and another one) may have blended into one. The crowd, though smaller, was really appreciative. When it played at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin last August, it sold out by 9:45 p.m. on a Monday night, so that was a pretty incredible experience! It was amazing, too, that the majority of the audience stayed for the Q&A!

A&S: Who were the major players in the underground punk scene back in the early 80s and why?

L.T.H.: I was a bit younger than the original punks from the DFW scene. I was the second wave, as Charlie Gilder, owner of Bar of Soap, likes to say. So speaking for them, which is always a bad idea, Bobby Soxx seems to stand out. He seemed to be a guy you loved to hate. He died of alcohol poisoning a decade ago. He was well known for being so destructive. However, there were many standouts; members of the Nervebreakers, Stickmen with Rayguns, Fort Worth Cats and VVV Record Store. As far as the late 70s, you’ll have to ask someone from the first wave to answer that question. Some of the bands I liked in the early 80s and later on were Why am I, Sedition, Broken Promise, MC 900 Ft. Jesus and I was one of the first fans of Reverend Horton Heat. I got into the late 70s bands later, after I started making the documentary in 1995.

A&S: If you could bring back one venue and put together a reunion showcase, who would perform and where?

L.T.H.: I’m not big on living in the past. I would rather go back and live a random day at the Hot Klub and just see what happens. Seeing the Sex Pistols reunion tour soured me on the whole reunion thing.

A&S: Are you planning on working on future documentaries or films?

L.T.H.: I plan on doing small projects only, so no big documentaries, only music videos, weird warped animated pieces and small documentaries about a few people. That is about it for the next year or two. Plus, I make mosaics and draw, both of which I plan on doing a lot more.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.

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Thursday Morning Roundup

WON’T YOU HELP?: Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren K. Woods has posted the above video to the organization’s YouTube channel. In it, he talks about some of the nice things being said about the opera around the country and, as you might guess, asks for your financial support in light of other funding drying up.

TISK, TISK: The Council for Artists Rights, an advocacy group based in Chicago (I looked for a Web site but couldn’t find one) is none too happy with the DMA and the Modern. Its beef, according to Glasstire, is with the museums’ curators working with the Cowboys on the art program at the new stadium and essentially taking work away from an independent curator. Legitimate complaint? Much ado about nothing? You decide.

MUSIC BITS: Are Fort Worth’s Whiskey Folk Ramblers breaking up? Preston Jones is looking into the matter, and all signs for now point towards yes. (dfw.com) … Grapevine’s Mount Righteous has a new album out. The band’s songwriter, Joey Kendall, tells Hunter Hauk that the new release is, “all about suburbia, sort of the status quo and what people expect of you when you get older.” (quickdfw.com) … Sleep Whale is the guest for the latest episode of DC9 Live at El Sibil. (DC9 at Night)

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Casting Call: Midland Wants Extras TONIGHT

Not the town, the FOX TV pilot, Midland, about a con artist juggling two families in two Texas towns. It stars Jon Voight and David Keith. And they need them today. Especially if you’re an “oil executive type” in “cocktail attire” — sounds completely foreign to me.

But here’s the e-mail:

SEEKING Paid EXTRAS for new television pilot “MIDLAND” starring Jon Voight.

Today is our final day of filming on this television project and we are casting paid EXTRAS for a special scene that takes place TODAY – Wednesday 3/31/10 in the Dallas area.

The scene is an upscale oil executive office and an upscale executive office party. Seeking the following types:, Oil Executive types – men and women ages 35-65 with professional business attire and or cocktail attire-. The start time is 6:30pm .

Pay rate isn’t a lot, it is $7.25/hr plus overtime after 8 hours, but this will be a fun opportunity to get dressed up and be on television with Jon Voight.

If you are interested, please email us ASAP at: midland.casting@yahoo.com. Be sure to include your first & last name, phone number, a recent photo (preferably in business or cocktail attire) and which time slot you are available.

If you have questions – please call my cell 505/366-9863.

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'The Beauty Plays' Can Get Ugly — In a Good Way

DTC - The Shape of Things - Steven Walters and Abbey Siegworth (3) - photo by Brandon Thibodeaux-400Steven Walters and Abby Siegworth in The Shape of Things

The Dallas Theater Center is in the middle of presenting three plays by Neil LaBute, who’s been called the “bad boy of American theater.” KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on the unsettling side of The Beauty Plays.

  • Dallas Voice‘s review of The Shape of Things and Fat Pig
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

With his stage  plays and such films as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, Neil LaBute’s work has been called abrasive, creepy and malevolent.

You’d think his characters regularly raped and murdered each other. Actually, in some plays, they do — like The Distance from Here, in which a teenager drowns a baby.

But it’s LaBute’s basic view of the sexes that’s unsettling — and unsparing. Beneath all their quick, comic banter, his men and women fall into two types. Either you’re sharp-tongued and cold-hearted or you’re well-meaning but meek. You’re either a jerk or a sheep. Certainly, LaBrute agrees, none of his characters is particularly admirable.

LaBUTE: “You have to let me work toward admirable. That’s probably not the zip code I’m operating in. ‘Admirable’ is three streets over from where I live [laughs].”

LaBute is busy preparing his new film, Death at a Funeral, to be released in two weeks.  He says this is the first time that his stage trilogy has been presented like this. When the third play, reasons to be pretty, begins previews Friday at the Dallas Theater Center, they’ll be in repertory, alternating on stage.

LaBUTE: “Beyond that, the way in which they’re doing it is really creative – in terms of having just six actors. Each of them are in two of the shows, and I think it was really clever.”

The trilogy is called The Beauty Plays because each dark comedy is about body image, about what is acceptable or appealing. Presenting them like this – with the same company of actors – highlights how LaBute takes similar characters and the same components of sexual attraction and shrewdly re-arranges them like chess pieces. This is the kind of committed, thematic exploration he can do in the theater, LaBute says. It’s certainly not the case with his more hodge-podge career in filmmaking. His movies are often “one-offs,” displays of attempted versatility in different genres (endangered homeowner-thriller in Lakeview Terrace, adapting A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, re-making the occult thriller The Wicker Man, etc.).

In the first Beauty play, The Shape of Things, a smart young woman does a complete makeover on her new boyfriend, upgrading his looks for her own calculated reasons. In the second, called Fat Pig, it’s the young woman who’s less than conventionally perfect. She’s heavyset, but her new boyfriend finds he must endure the mockery of his office mates, and he may not have the backbone for it. In the third play, reasons to be pretty, a young man has called his girlfriend ‘regular looking,’ and the play opens with her tirade against him.

Because these women are often strident or bitter, LaBute’s plays have also been called sexist. Ironically, these same roles provide great opportunities for female performers to do things onstage they rarely have the chance to.

fattt renderedChristina Vela and Regan Adair in Fat Pig

Christina Vela has the most bipolar pair of roles in the Beauty trilogy. First, she plays the title character in Fat Pig, the unfortunate Helen who finds her new love embarrassed by her. Vela has her ample size on display – and cruelly ridiculed.

VELA: “I’m a bigger girl, I’m curvy. And so making yourself vulnerable like that – it’s difficult. You’re kind of just putting it all out there and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to show it – now.’ And so I thought, if something is not easy to do or if something does not scare you when you’re playing it onstage, then it’s not worth doing.”

But then Vela gets to flip around and play Steph, the resentful woman in reasons to be pretty who starts by shredding her clueless boyfriend, played by Lee Trull.

VELA: “It is super fun to play Steph. Yeah, totally. After playing Helen and having my heart broken? That’s tough. So then I come in and play Steph and rip Lee Trull a new one every night?  Awesome. Awesome. [Laughs.]”

Vela argues LaBute’s plays aren’t misogynist for this simple reason. His men generally come off worse. LaBute’s main male characters aren’t evil (that’s usually left to the sidekicks, the real alpha males, who are savagely honest and totally selfish). Often, the main nebbishes simply don’t know themselves, don’t know what they feel, don’t know what to do.

In fact, Fat Pig, Vela says, is not really about a woman being fat and being ostracized for it. Forty years ago, she says, it could have been about being African-American. It’s about whatever superficial thing people will let themselves be cowed over, run their lives.

So LaBute’s men face a painful reckoning with such failings. What the playwright says about Tom (Regan Adair) in Fat Pig has a wider application here.

LaBUTE: “In the end, it really becomes a study in weakness – of a guy who finds in himself something that I would find rather unpleasant about myself, which is, I’m a coward.”

But then, calling these “The Weakness Trilogy” or “The Lack of Self-Knowledge Plays” probably wouldn’t sound as attractive — as conventionally, conveniently appealing  — as The Beauty Plays.

Photo of Neil Labute from the Guardian

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Flickr Photo of the Week

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Categorized Under: Visual Arts

thedirector

Congratulations to Brian Lopiccolo of Euless, the winner of the Flickr Photo of the Week contest! Besides photography, Brian is also a dedicated foodie and the co-editor of the food blog The Little Dish. He follows last week’s winner, Misti Boe.

If you would like to participate in the Flickr Photo of the Week contest, all you need to do is upload your photo to to our Flickr group page. It’s fine to submit a photo you took previous to the current week, but we are hoping that the contest will inspire you to go out and shoot something fantastic this week to share with Art&Seek users. If the picture you take involves a facet of the arts, even better. The contest week will run from Monday to Sunday, and the Art&Seek staff will pick a winner on Monday afternoon. We’ll notify the winner through FlickrMail (so be sure to check those inboxes) and ask you to fill out a short survey to tell us a little more about yourself and the photo you took. We’ll post the winners’ photo on Wednesday.

Now here’s more from Brian:

Brian Lopiccolo

Title of photo: The Director

Equipment: Camera – Mamiya 645E Medium Format. Lens – 80mm Mamiya -Sekor C 2.8. Film – Ilford HP5 Plus 400

Tell us more about your photo: On our way back from a weekend trip to visit a friend in Austin, we decided to take a detour off the highway to see if we could find a friendly cow to have a photo shoot with. When that went bust, we just pulled over on the dusty road to take some photos of ourselves. Sometimes all it takes is a little adventure, a few friends and a camera. It’s what I love about photography.

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