So Help Us, Todd
Photographer Todd V. Wolfson, who has been making Austin musicians look their best for 25 years, says he was making a point, with a wink, by doing three Austin Chronicle feature shots in a row with the subjects sitting on the ground. “I’m a street photographer, goddammit,” he says, with a laugh. His photography mentor growing up in Tulsa was local cult lensman Gaylord Herron, who got so close to the grit without getting any on him. Wolfson is best known for his portraits of local musicians, but he likes to shoot them in alleys, abandoned soul food joints and down by the tracks.
“My goal, always, is to get to the essence of the people I’m photographing,” Wolfson, 55, said recently from his office/home/studio off Burnet Road. “It’s like when you’re watching a movie and the actors aren’t talking like people talk. They lose you right away. But when you get to the core, you’re getting to the soul.” He gets the subjects to loosen up and said the best of his photos show something of his own vulnerability. “I don’t like to do a lot of setting up. Let’s just see what happens naturally.”
Wolfson has been the kid with the camera, always with the camera, since he was a seven-year-old in Oklahoma, the son of a retail executive who met Todd’s mother when they were students at Ohio State University. In junior high, Todd solidified his future by making money with a photo he shot of Alice Cooper at the Tulsa Assembly Center in 1973. “It was just an Instamatic camera, with a flash bulb, but when Alice went into the audience, he was right in front of me and I snapped it.” A neighbor developed the shot as an 8 x 10 and it looked so good, Todd sold them at school for $2 a piece (netting $1.25 on each photo) and had the kids lined up.
He moved to Austin with a girlfriend in 1979 after they saw Captain Beefheart at the Armadillo on a road trip from the Dallas suburbs. Wolfson worked in various camera shops in town in the ‘80s, including two stints at Precision Camera. He decided to pursue a fulltime career as a photographer in 1990 after he was hired by the Reivers to shoot the back cover of the Pop Beloved album and then hooked up with his male muse Alejandro Escovedo. “I like to think that Alejandro’s career- as a solo artist, after True Believers- and my career started at the same time.” Wolfson shot the front cover of Escovedo’s debut Gravity and got his first Austin Chronicle cover with an Escovedo triptych in 1992. Other favorite Wolfson subjects are Chrysta Bell and Juliana Sheffield of 8 ½ Souvenirs, Allyson Lipkin, Sally Allen, David Garza and anybody named Sexton or married to anyone named Sexton.
“Beauty, to me, is a gift,” he says. “I don’t mean the gift of good looks, I mean that beauty gives something back. I can feel it. I know when I’m getting something great. Then, I have to look at the shots and go ‘whew!’ Yep, I got it.”
We visited Wolfson in his studio recently and looked over his shoulder, helping pick out shots of 25 Beautiful Austin Musicians. These are all Wolfson shots and he didn’t shoot every beautiful soul with a guitar or mic, so some of the folks on the list I brought Todd- Paul Leary, Angela Strehli, the bass player for the Xetas, Mario Matteoli, Lou Ann Barton, young Roky, Alvin Dedeaux, Joe Doerr, Jeff Smith, Tameca Jones, Lisa Pankratz, David Woody and so on- aren’t here. Maybe some day I’ll compile “The 25 Most Beautiful…” ranking and take photos from different sources. Sounds like a really important use of time. But for now, this is All Todd. Enjoy your time in the Wolf Den.