Bill Little commentary: The master painter
Aug. 24, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
I don't remember the circumstances, but I remember the moment.
It was somewhere in the latter part of the 1980s. We had expanded what was then called our "Sports Information Office" and hired -- for the first time -- a Publications Editor for Longhorn men's sports. At the time, the men's and women's programs were completely separate.
Debbie Havis had been a student assistant in our office, and had worked with the sport of baseball. She was energetic and creative, and as athletics department publications made the transition from the old 4" by 9" press guides to a magazine format with a color cover, Debbie was the perfect fit. And it didn't take her long to realize that to create good publications, you needed good pictures.
To that point, the Texas Sports Information had survived by contracting the shooting of mug shots and the purchase of a few select photos from some talented free-lance photographers. That process had produced some historic pictures, but there were not enough photos to fill the new books that Debbie was planning.
In the vernacular of politics -- and things were often quite political in those days -- Debbie dared to look "across the aisle" at the office operation of Chris Plonsky, who was the sports information director for women. In 1982, Chris had contracted with a young UT graduate named Susan Allen to become her staff photographer.
In those times, you had to have two pretty basic things to produce pictures. One was the equipment to take the pictures, and the other was a space to process the film and prints. Susan had neither. She borrowed $1,500 to buy photographic equipment, and she somehow found darkroom equipment and space.
All of that mattered to me, because as the son of a photographer who as a kid remembered his dad processing film in a closet under the staircase at the house at 707 Heights Street in Winters, Texas, I knew where she was coming from. In fact, I had been the lucky one of the two of us -- Susan and me -- when we both had started generations apart in photography. I was the photographer for my high school yearbook. Susan's yearbook sponsor wouldn't let a girl in the school dark room.
In her odyssey, Susan married and had a little boy. A few years later, she was divorced and a single mom with a son who was deaf. But that didn't stop her. She would take Christopher with her to women's basketball games, and he would go to sleep in her lap as she shot pictures from the baseline.
When Debbie Havis proposed the merging of Susan's talents with the needs of the men's sports information office, her workload doubled, and she was faced with the challenge of learning a sport called football, and how to photograph it.
It was during that time that Susan came into my office to visit with me as her supervisor. I remember that day because I learned a valuable lesson about managing people. Too often, we see only the production, and we miss the story of the producer. Whatever the cause, Susan was in tears that day, and it required a level of understanding that as a new boss I hadn't yet had to encounter.
How ironic it was that I learned that lesson from a photographer -- because what I came to understand was that you have to look beyond the picture, into the person.
Susan never quit working, and she never quit learning. Making friends with master sports photographers such as Rich Clarkson, Susan went to summer clinics and practiced her art continuously as she became one of the best sports photographers in the business.
Time would bless her with a new husband, a kindred spirit and a great photographer in his own right in Jim Sigmon. They would add a daughter, Wes, to the family, and together they would build a photography department without peer at any university in the country.
Some people know about history; Susan Sigmon has chronicled it. For almost 25 years, she has photographed every significant event in Longhorn sports history. The roll film and darkrooms have given way to digital cameras and photo shop computers. The early photographs of Texas Athletics, once preserved carefully in manila folders by Bill Sansing and the late Wilbur Evans and Jones Ramsey, are now being transferred to computers by Jim and Susan and their staff.
Talented photographers have come and gone, working with Susan and Jim and heading on to new opportunities.
Tuesday afternoon they will honor Susan at a retirement party, and for the first time in a while, she won't have to bring her camera to take the pictures.
They say that one picture is worth a thousand words, and Susan's work is a testimony to that. She is the living example of the premise in which I have always believed: photographers are born, not made. Rapid fire shutters, digital cameras, all of the modern inventions which make hundreds of pictures where one shot used to be all you could get are part of the business today.
All of that, however, will never replace the single most important part of any life's work -- the passion.
In the books and the magazines, on the walls and in countless memorabilia that every Texas Longhorn fan has come to cherish -- that is where Susan's work will always live.
And I will always remember a young college student, who was brave enough to believe in herself, and in a future that she could only imagine. Great artists using paint and brush sign their work. Artists like Susan sustain themselves, not only by what they did, but who they are.