In a new book, photographer Sarah Wilson excavates ideas on family, fossils, and the West Texas desert


“DIG: Notes on Field and Family” is a new book from Austin-based photographer Sarah Wilson out now from Yoffy Press.

The book tells the story of how a love of the West Texas landscape and its fossils brought Wilson closer to her grandfather, paleontologist John A. Wilson. He founded the Vertebrate Paleontology Lab at the University of Texas in 1949.

“The book touches upon his importance in that world and his history, and then how we have a connecting point later in my life and before he passes away,” Sarah said. “And our connection is definitely through our love of the West Texas desert.”

Sarah Wilson

During his years at UT John Wilson spent part of each year hunting for fossils in West Texas. He made some major finds, including some of the earliest mammal fossils ever found in the Big Bend, from the era just after the dinosaurs.

In her twenties, Sarah had spent a summer in the small West Texas town of Marathon working for a photographer. Many years later, she photographed the Big Bend area for a cover story for Texas Monthly.

“When that article came out, I was able to bring a copy to my grandfather, and that’s the moment where he saw that I had a love for the same landscape and that he did, too, from his history on digs and going out there every year,” she said. “It really reignited our relationship, which led him to give me his teaching slides.”

A year before he died, Wilson gave his granddaughter three black steel boxes full of his Kodachrome teaching slides. She realized in looking at the slides that she had photographed some of the same locations as her grandfather, decades apart.

“It opened up this journey for me to go and continue his work out there, something like a choice that I never would have thought I would have,” Sarah recalls. “It’s one of those moments where I decided to carry on and that led me to introduce myself to people at the Paleontology Lab.”

Sarah Wilson
A selection of Jack Wilson’s 35 mm Kodachrome teaching slides given to his granddaughter Sarah Wilson.
Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson’s contemporary photo collage of 25 year old expired film shot at Dalquest Desert Research Site #2 in West Texas
Sarah Wilson
Time-lapse composite of Sarah Wilson prospecting for fossils, Dalquest Desert Research Site, 2021

Sarah began going on digs with the UT team in West Texas. She learned how to hunt for fossils, and even had a major find of her own. All the while, she was taking pictures of her journey, not knowing how she would use them later.

For her, being among that landscape and ancient fossils led her to think about time in a larger scope.

“The concept of deep time is what I’ve been thinking about a lot. When you’re confronted with this evidence of life from 40-plus million years ago, and you’re in the middle of the desert with nothing else to do but find more bones, your life becomes very focused. All of the extra BS that we incorporate into our daily lives falls away.

“It’s a very meditative for me, and it really connects me to our origin story in a lot of ways — like how quickly we have evolved, but not always for the best. Just thinking about these prehistoric animals and their life makes me think we were supposed to be the smartest, most intelligent beings, but we are quickly destroying our own planet. There’s a lot of that kind of thought in this project.”

“DIG” showcases Sarah’s photos along with those of her grandfather, and tells a little of bit of both of their stories and how their lives intertwined with the desert landscape in different eras. She plans a photography show at Austin’s Charles Moore House in April.

‘DIG: Notes on Field and Family’ 
Photographs by Sarah Wilson
Essay by Matthew A. Brown
128 pages
Yoffy Press

Rebecca Johnson
Rebecca Johnson
Rebecca Johnson is an Austin-based arts writer and owner of Arts Articulated, LLC.

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