Photographer Lou Vest, well-known for his series of Houston Ship Channel images, is looking for an ice cream truck. A professional ship pilot (he steers cargo ships from the Ship Channel to the open sea and back again), Vest regularly sees things few other Houstonians see - the sunrise over the channel, the mountains of cargo being moved and the extraordinary people who bustle across the gritty docks and boat decks. Several years ago, Vest was working on the channel when he saw an ice cream truck drive onto the docks. Several burly workers bought Popsicles and sat down for a break. "That was such a great image," he tells us. "The ice cream truck, the workers each with different colored Popsicles. I thought, 'Wow, I wish I had a camera.' Now I do."
Vest says he's never seen the ice cream truck again. "But I look for it every once in a while," he laughs.
The small size and light weight of digital cameras have freed Vest up to take photos while he's on the job. "I can't carry a tripod everywhere I go and most of the time I'm on a ship that's moving, so there's a limit to what I can do. I can't arrange shots and I can't just leave my post whenever I want to take a picture because of safety issues."
Even with those limitations, Vest feels his days are filled with photographic opportunities. "My role on the channel provides a niche that few people have. In 2004, Houston became the biggest port in the U.S. in terms of ship traffic and foreign trade. I get to see the whole operation from beginning to end. I'm out there in all kinds of weather and any time of day. I never have to wake up and wonder what photo project I need to work on. Someone usually calls me up, often in the middle of the night, and sends me down to one of the world's most image rich environments.
"At first I just took photos for myself, but people started asking for photos to use for presentations. One year someone asked me to make some prints to sell at a fund raiser for the Seaman's Center in Houston and they sold for enough money that I thought I should get a real camera and good lenses."
In 2011, one of Vest's images was named Best Photo of the Year at the Houston Web Awards. He participated in a FotoFest 2010 exhibit at City Hall for and had a show at the Arts Alliance during FotoFest 2012.
What He Does: "I'm a ship pilot. I go down to the port, get on a ship and maneuver her away from a dock and out to sea, then I bring one back in. Sort of a specialized ship captain just for Houston. I carry my camera to work and take photos when I can. As a pilot, I look at the ship channel to see current, wind, weather, traffic and to make sure my ship is in the right place. As a photographer, I add to that an awareness of color, texture, and light. The pilot in me looks for situations that might cause a problem - will I be overtaking a tow in a narrow spot? The photographer watches the changing arrangement of light, reflection, and motion as, for example, a tow becomes framed by sunlight on the water or a ship moves between me and a developing thundercloud.
"I've been fortunate that people like my photos and I've been able to contribute to an awareness of shipping and the port as something other than the dark secret east of the city. I'd like to see the port be more a part of the culture of the city. We're not really known as a seaport even though we have a lot more traffic than better known ports like L.A., New York or San Francisco."
Why He Likes It: "Like all art it expands my world. [And] I like the learning experience. Every year I look back and think how dumb I was last year about some things and that's great. That might be a secret of mental youth: to be always on a learning curve. Art does that.
What Inspires Him: "The port itself is an inspiration. It's so big and such a rich environment for grand images. I think anyone who has spent time there has seen things they remember all their lives. Photography is a way of freezing those moments.
"Other photographers [inspire me, too]. I see images every day that make me want to do better.
If Not This, Then What: "Writing. When I was younger I wanted to write the great American novel."
If Not Here, Then Where: "I love Houston. It's such a great place for opportunity and the people here are the best I've known anywhere. That said, my wife is from Cartagena, Colombia. We met in the U.S. and she took me back to here home town for a visit that lasted four years. It's the place where magical realism intersects with reality. We have begun spending more time in Cartagena recently."
What's Next: "Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the modern port. I'd like to participate in an exhibit somewhere in Houston to help celebrate.
"I've been contacted about participating in a book project about the port. My friend Anita Jaisinghani of Indika and Pondicheri is working on a cookbook/memoir and she wants me to do the photography; not just food, but photos from India as well. That will be a new learning curve.
"I've been learning to print my own work, something I should have done long ago. Beyond that I'd like to work on some other Houston projects. The city has an amazing tree canopy. I'd like to find a good way to develop that theme. And then there's Cartagena - another rich subject for a photographer."
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