MSU photographer retires after decades of capturing history
MISSISSIPPI STATE, Miss. (AP) — For the last week of March, stepping into the Colvard Student Union’s second floor art gallery meant to take a look through the storied career of longtime Mississippi State University photographer Russ Houston.
Houston, 55, is retiring from his position as photographic services coordinator on June 1, after nearly 30 years with the university. Houston is a Starkville native and 1985 broadcasting alumnus of MSU.
The exhibit, which is already on display in the art gallery, features 36 photos from across Houston’s career. They cover just about every aspect of Mississippi State, from an aerial shot of campus and graduations to sports and an opossum sticking its nose in a staffer’s ear.
The opossum photo, from 2006, comes from the Wildlife and Fisheries Research and Education facility, where Houston said he was often called out to shoot photos of animals.
“For some reason or another, they had a baby possum out there,” Houston said. “He said something about ‘he likes to do something to my ear,’ so he did that and I snapped that.”
Another photo features MSU professor Jeremy Jackson holding up a 28-pound, 28-inch polypore mushroom that was found near campus. Houston said that photo was picked up as far away as China.
Houston’s exhibit will remain on display through Friday, and includes at reception from 2-4 p.m. on Tuesday in the Union’s Old Main Lounge.
MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter said Houston has, throughout his career, been an asset for MSU.
“Russ Houston has been an outstanding ambassador for Mississippi State for the last three decades,” Salter said. “His institutional memory will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. We will miss Russ, and we wish him well in his retirement.”
Houston started working for MSU in 1988, following a two-year stint at The Dispatch.
When he was a boy he would watch his father and brother work in a homemade darkroom. He said he thought it was cool, and it sparked his interest.
“I had this small camera that would shoot a square-ish negative,” he said. “No exposure adjustments or anything. Whatever you shot was what you got. I started shooting pictures on that and thought that was kind of fun to do.”
From there, Houston shot some pictures for yearbooks in high school. In college, he continued shooting photography but said he dropped out after two years from a lack of interest in studying forestry. He re-enrolled as a broadcasting major after some advice from his wife’s roommate.
Houston’s career has been split, almost perfectly, by the film and digital photography eras. He said he can still remember having to be much more conservative shooting with a film camera than with digital because film was expensive.
One piece in his exhibit -- a series of three shots of legendary former MSU baseball coach Ron Polk protesting a call in a 1993 baseball game -- emphasizes the difference. The photos show the evolution of Polk’s argument with an umpire, ending with him shoving against the official. Houston said they were shot three-in-a-row, in quick succession for the time, but are a far cry from the dozens of photos he could get with a digital camera today.
“Especially at night you just didn’t motor drive it and fire off a bunch of stuff,” he said. “Now, between this and this (the first two photos) you probably would’ve shot 100 shots, then you would have to sift through it and find it.
“I looked at that and said, ‘People aren’t gonna believe that’s three consecutive shots,’” he added.
Watching MSU grow
Houston said he’s enjoyed his time with photography, but he won’t miss the sometimes chaotic schedule. He said he’s worked every day of the week, and at some point, every holiday except the Fourth of July.
“You’re kind of on call 24/7,” he said. “It’s not that bad, but if something happens -- we had a shooting on campus and I remember one Sunday afternoon or evening and I had to go shoot for that. Some of it can be fun, but it can also wear on you.”
Still, Houston said he’ll miss watching Mississippi State grow as he has for 30 years, from the days when “Malfunction Junction” led to horrific traffic jams on the south side of campus to today, where the Junction is one of the primary gathering spaces at MSU.
He said he’ll also miss the connections he’s made through the years.
“There’s relationships that I’ve built with faculty and staff,” he said. “The students come and go, so eventually I’m going to lose sight of them. And the alumni -- many of them are so generous with their money, but they’re just as down home as can be.”
‘He’s a photo artist’
Perhaps one of the people Houston will miss most is Sammy McDavid, former news editor for MSU’s Office of Public Affairs, and the feeling is mutual.
McDavid said he can remember former coordinator of photographic services Fred Faulk hiring Houston.
“Fred was a perfectionist, and he would only hire someone who was like him,” McDavid said. “That speaks to Russ.”
McDavid said Houston is the “ultimate nice guy” and even with getting simple “grip and grin” handshake or other utilitarian-type photos for the university’s news publications, he found ways to make the process as efficient and smooth as possible.
In Houston’s other work, McDavid said, his talent is undeniable.
“He is a photo artist, he’s not just a photographer,” McDavid said. “There’s no question about that. He’s got ‘the eye.’ Nowadays everybody’s a photographer because everyone’s phone has a camera, but he’s of that group of people.”
For his retirement, Houston said he hopes to “slow down” and spend more time with his grandchildren. Still, he said he plans to stay busy.
“I will definitely be doing something part time,” he said. “Some of that, I’m still working on. But I’m putting down the camera. I’ve done that for 32 years. I’ll get the itch after being out of it a year or so. Point-and-shoot, anyway -- I’ll be wanting to see what I can get with that. Gotta keep Facebook going with my grandchildren.”
Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com