Warren Harris: A Grateful Dead Roadie Turned Prolific Texas Photographer
At 64, Warren Harris has led an exceptionally various life. Starting out in the psychedelic music scene in San Francisco back in the 1960s, he was a roadie for The Grateful Dead. He worked in the music industry for decades after that, doing engineering work at Motown and sound for live shows. But Harris has always had a passion for photography, and that's become his primary focus since relocating to Texas.
Harris plays guitar, but after noticing that many guitar players who were better than him were washing dishes, he decided life as a musician probably wasn’t the best way to provide for his children. After majoring in electronics in college, he was working as an engineer at Motown by the mid 1970s. After that, he was dragged away by Sly Stone, who he says is probably the most talented musician he has ever worked with. Harris took many photographs of Stone and was recently contacted by PBS, who plans to use some of these images for an upcoming special. “We came up with a licensing agreement that everyone is happy with,” he said in an interview.
He continued this work with other musicians, also doing sound for live shows at nearly every major venue in the Bay Area, often taking photographs. But in the early 90s, Harris was building a studio at MC Hammer’s house and decided he was ready to leave the music industry behind. From his experiences, successful musicians had always been great people. They were talented, but recognized that many others were too and acknowledged the role that luck played in their success. Toward the end of his career in the industry, Harris was beginning to notice a shift in attitudes that he didn’t care for.
After a few visits to Texas, he moved to Plano in the late 1990s. The change of environment inspired him to focus more on photography, and this new obsession quickly took off in many directions. He loves experimenting with long exposure photographs in the dark, often shooting before he goes to bed and after he wakes up. “The older I get the less sleep I need,” he told me one night, his camera setup near the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Even after weeks of rain, it was still shocking how high the water is. He took shots of the skyline and its reflection on the Trinity River.
Harris is also interested in tracking down old cemeteries and headstones to photograph, hoping to uncover untold histories. He lists pyramid mausoleums in Oakland, a family plot from the late 1800s in Plano, and a Confederate cemetery in Pottsboro among his favorites.
A few years ago, Harris published a book of photographs called Texas As I See It, which focuses on Texas minutiae. Traveling around Texas, he photographed unusual signs, a butterfly on the handle of a Harley Davidson, images from Marfa, blue bonnets, and even angry mockingbirds. Planned as the first of many, the next book will focus on the long exposure photographs he takes in the dark.
There are still other projects. He has a series of photographs on Route 66 that he is trying to figure out what to do with. He has recently started working on more abstract photography, creating psychedelic vortexes. There is what he describes as an “alien landscape series,” in which he captures cities and landscapes in ways that are not identifiable as man made. He guesses that these particular photographs have something to do with his brief stint as an architect.
Harris even has a book planned called Girls and Cars of Texas. He describes it as a huge project that is years in the making. As a photographer, he regularly gets calls from people who want him to shoot women and cars, sometimes together. Always preferring to shoot at night, the images are very dramatic, featuring beautiful women and some of the most expensive cars on the planet.
“It’s really hard to make a living in photography,” Harris told me. “Trying to carve out a niche is so difficult.” Perhaps this is why he has such a diverse body of work. It seems like he will photograph anything, with the exception of weddings. “Life is too short for weddings,” says Harris.