Matthew Fuller remembers the days before Texas barbecue would attract lines out the door. Before the joints that serve the best of it became downright sacred institutions of smoked meat. Before all of the craze for good-quality brisket with just the right balance of fat and smoke necessitated a barbecue editor at Texas Monthly.
Born the same year that Cooper’s Old Time Pit Barb-B-Que in Mason was established, he grew up on a cattle ranch and later watched as his parents opened and ran Fuller’s Custom Smoked Meats in Lampasas.
“As a baby, I teethed on barbecue bones from Cooper’s,” he says. “It started right from infancy, you know, eating barbecue.”
So it only made sense to him, a longtime professional photographer, to spend much of his free time last summer documenting some of Central Texas’ more iconic barbecue spots. Each shot resonates with a sense of place, but Fuller also imbued them with his own artistic flair.
Many of the images he took are now on display as the main show at the Davis Gallery through June 6. “Fat Smoke” — named after the two crucial ingredients that he says are “the essence of great barbecue” — features a mix of sepia-toned, black-and-white and color photographs often edited to highlight the bright flames powering a smoker or the blue haze of a pre-dawn morning, when a lot of barbecue places start getting the coals warmed up.
Accentuating the photographs with extra color drew out the fiery essence of his sometimes dark and dingy subjects, he says, noting that the Salt Lick photo that has become an icon of his Davis Gallery show was spruced up with blue-hued shadows at the top, “accentuating the warmth of the meat and the lights and the pit itself.”
Fuller documented about a dozen Central Texas barbecue joints, including Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor and City Meat Market in Giddings. He says he had originally aimed for a more comprehensive look at the state’s favorite cuisine but stuck with those after realizing that the barbecue joints in the bigger cities all have scrubbers for smoke control — an expensive regulatory tool currently at the center of a controversial Austin proposal seeking to limit barbecue smoke in neighborhoods.
Like many barbecue lovers in town, Fuller is against them.
The scrubbers “completely ruin the atmosphere, the flavor and the whole idea of the barbecue joint,” he says. “The pits with them aren’t wild and woolly like they are at Smitty’s or Snow’s, where it’s just all out in the open, cowboy-style.”
That’s how it was when he was growing up on a ranch and eating 2-inch steaks, he says. Although he and his brothers decided not to continue their parents’ legacy of Fuller’s Custom Smoked Meats, he’s had his share of good barbecue since he was young (except for the years he spent as a vegetarian, of course) and loves that the tradition of smoking meats hasn’t changed after all these years.
“It’s a simple formula: the wood and the smoke and the fat and the meat,” he says.
The reverence he has for Texas barbecue is evident in each of his “Fat Smoke” photographs, which capture every aspect of the meat-smoking scene, from the dark but cozy-looking nooks and crannies of the old building where Smitty’s Market is located in Lockhart to the bright, picture-laden walls of Sam’s Bar-B-Que’s dining area in East Austin. (House Park Bar-B-Que, down the street from Davis Gallery, is also featured in the show.)
But as much as Fuller enjoyed grabbing a bite at each of the barbecue places where he snapped photos, he isn’t about to get up at the crack of dawn to stand in line at one of them.
Hoping to take pictures of Franklin Barbecue, arguably Austin’s most beloved barbecue joint, he arrived there at 6 a.m. last year and was stunned to see people already in line.
“They’re just a bunch of happy-go-lucky people who love — I think they love the idea of standing in line as much as the barbecue,” he says. “It’s like the people who stand in line for a ticket to a show. It’s a badge of honor to do it. It’s very Austin.”
“Fat Smoke” at Davis Gallery
What: Photographs of Texas barbecue joints. The show also offers an accompanying book of photography for $225.
Where: 837 W. 12th St.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, through June 6
More information: www.davisgalleryaustin.com