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Commentary: Jim's Tattoo

By Spencer Michlin, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Jim Murray finally got his tattoo. Having chickened out as a young sailor, Jim now sports on his left shoulder the tiny anchor that he coveted in 1948. Recently, a graying fellowship of some of those he taught about work and art and life took him down to Deep Ellum and bore witness to the event. Mentor to a considerable portion of Dallas's creative community, the 75-year-old photographer and documentarian has survived a serious stroke and is now struggling with bladder cancer. This tattoo and a ZZ Topp-length beard appear to be Jim's way to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Jim arrived in Dallas in 1950, graduating from SMU in 1954. He soon had a job as a cameraman for WBAP News (Channel 5). He covered every kind of TV news story and then became a freelance still photographer. Jim was at Dealey Plaza and at Parkland Hospital in November 1963, and his photographs of those events have been reprinted throughout the world and were the subject of the book, "That Day in Dallas." One of them, Lee Harvey Oswald looking up amidst a surrounding bouquet of cowboy hats worn by Dallas cops, is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Jim clambered onto a file cabinet to get the angle.

In 1966, Jim joined legendary Dallas photographer Shel Hershorn in Hershorn/Murray Studios on Oak Lawn. That studio, like Jim's later solo ateliers in the old Baker Hotel and in the warehouse he bought and converted in the West End, became a magnet for talented young people who wanted to learn and, just as often, simply hang out with Jim. We'd spend long evenings on that ratty brown couch talking film and politics and sex and learning to drink Scotch. His proteges from those years include noted artist Dan Rizzie, filmmakers Alan Mondell and John Walker, photographer Shelley Katz, video and graphic artist Michael Morris, and myself. Most of us were there for the tattooing, along with Jim's longtime friend and agent Burt Finger.

Jim always looked like a sailor to me as he scurried, stretched and squatted about the physical aspects of his trade - shirtless, cigarette dangling, his lush, untamed eyebrows (always catnip for women) - independently alive. He'd wedge his wiry body around, above, under or through anything that stood between him and the perfect shot. Although a gifted still photographer, his real love is documentary filmmaking. Jim has a particular knack for capturing the spirit and the work of artists, creating notable films about sculptor Henry Moore and architect Howard Meyer. He also produced and directed the first commercial I ever wrote, a public service effort for the War on Poverty. More than producing and directing, Jim showed me that in every creative endeavor there is another, better angle, a filing cabinet to climb upon, and this approach has informed my best work as a writer. Funny thing about mentors: as you gain experience you find your own way of doing things, sometimes taking only a tiny bit of the lesson, sometimes rejecting it whole. But you never lose your awe of your teacher, even as that teacher becomes a colleague and lifelong friend.

Jim's frail now and nearly blind and walks very slowly with the aid of a cane. But once you tugboat him to his seat at his favorite table, those blue eyes sparkle through the thick glasses and his brilliant mind and lightening wit take over, swabbing away the years like that kid sailor who finally got his tattoo.


Spencer Michlin is a writer from Dallas.