Photographer of Big Bend
Southwestern graduate establishes himself as one of the leading photographers of the state’s best-known natural attraction
For 1997 graduate David Leggett, a love of West Texas that he developed as a young boy has parlayed itself into a career as one of the best-known photographers of the Big Bend region.
Leggett said his obsession with Big Bend began when he was a young boy and his father took him on a road trip out west.
“I had a small camera then and took lots of black and whites of the mountains,” he said. “I have always loved west Texas (his family owns a ranch outside of Menard), but it was not until I visited far west Texas − the Big Bend region − that I fell in love. I recall visiting the back river roads with my father, going to Lajitas and feeding the beer-drinking goat that was also the mayor at the time. It was also the first time I rafted the Rio Grande and went through Santa Elena Canyon. We also explored ghost towns like Shafter and it was also the first time I had ever been to Marfa.”
During his four years at Southwestern, Leggett said he spent every spring break with his fraternity brothers traveling to Big Bend National Park, where they would camp, hike and swim in the river all week long.
Even though he had been taking photos and developing his own film since he was 12, Leggett said he had no intention of becoming a photographer when he came to Southwestern. “I came to Southwestern set on being a biology/psychology major with an emphasis in animal behavior,” he said. “I spent two years with this study focus. After my sophomore year, I made a complete 180 and switched to a communication studies and theater double major and still graduated in four years after making such a drastic change. By the end of my senior year my intention was to either manage a non-profit theatre company or head to film school.”
Leggett ended up going to film school at UCLA, where he completed their advanced Producing for Cinema and Television Program, which covers two years of graduate school in six months. After completing this program he went to work with Hollywood director Gary Fleder at Mojo Films along with 1993 Southwestern graduate Eric Timm. Leggett met Timm as an undergraduate at his first Homecoming, and the two quickly became best friends, and remain so to this day.
After recovering from a freak Staph infection that left him bed-ridden for three months in early 2009, Leggett said he decided to get away from it all in the Big Bend region. He rented a house for a month in Marfa and embedded himself in town.
“I loved Marfa as a 10-year-old and am still in love with it 27 years later,” he said.
Among the people he met in Marfa was Mercer Black, the editor and publisher of the Big Bend and Texas Mountain Travel Guide. Black asked to see his work, and next thing he knew, he was taking photos for the magazine.
One of Leggett’s images was selected as the cover for the 2010-2011 Travel Guide. “To some it may look just like a road and a pretty sky with a mountain, but I planned that image,” Leggett said. “It was 14 degrees outside. I had studied for a day where the light was going to be that morning. I set up in the dark along the Castolon Road and waited for that perfect moment of the morning’s first light and got my shot. When I took it, I knew it was cover-worthy and sure enough it made the cover.”
Leggett has had several close calls while photographing in Big Bend, including an encounter with a mountain lion.
“I was hiking near my favorite spot in Big Bend − Ernst Tinaja −when I heard a mountain lion. It was just before sunrise and I looked up to where I heard it and sure enough I saw the cat on the upper ridge of the canyon. It is an arresting feeling when you hear and see a mountain lion because there is an old adage ‘if you see a mountain lion, it has seen or been tracking you for at least an hour.’ Luckily the cat left the top of the ridge, but for the rest of the morning I remained guarded and watched my back.”
Leggett currently lives in Dallas, where he works for publications such as the Dallas Morning News and D Magazine, but he tries to get out to Big Bend at least three or four times a year.
“I really love going out to the area in the winter time,” he said. “I love the Chihuahuan Desert when it’s cold outside, and there is nothing like the night sky out there. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”
One thing Leggett has not been able to capture is the famous Marfa Lights. “I saw the lights several times as a child and then again this past February on a very chilly night. I was unable to capture the lights but got an amazing shooting star series that I am very proud of.”
Legget said 2012 will be a major milestone for him, since it will mark 25 years that he has have been taking photos. Much has changed in those 25 years, particularly the advent of digital photography, which he said “makes everyone think they are a photographer just by picking up a camera.”
“I feel as if I am the last of a dying breed of photographer,” Leggett said. “There are not many photographers my age that ever learned darkroom photography and the mechanics and basics of photography.”