Local photographer studies community’s past, present
By LESLIE CONTRERAS
One look at the shirt Mike McCorkle is wearing and you learn a great deal about him. At the Hickory Pit in Bellaire, McCorkle shows up in a light blue shirt with a tire mark of paint in bright colors streaked on one side with the words "Proud To Be From Bellaire, Texas."
Indeed Bellaire commands a large part of McCorkle’s professional identity, specifically photography. He is one of the few historical photographers and archivists in the area who specializes in photos of Bellaire and greater Southwest Houston area.
Among his 3,000 copyrighted historical photographs include shots he garnered from the Bellaire photographer Peter Whitney of the Houston Skyway Monorail in 1956, the Astrodome in 1965, and other photos of the old Bellaire post offices, city halls and the last farmland.
McCorkle is also a self-described "unicycle artist," creating abstract canvasses in which he uses intense colors of acrylic or oil paints in a method he describes as follows: "I throw it, I blow it, I sling it, I roll through it (with a unicycle)."
His custom black-and-white historical photography is on display of the walls of Hickory Pit — itself a bastion of retro decor and homestyle warmth — expressing a story of Bellaire and southwest Houston before, he described, the bulldozers came through and built "mini mansions."
He holds out panoramic studies of streets that have since been bulldozed, such as the area where the new Bellaire water park has been constructed, and photographs of the last farm in the city.
"This goes way back," said McCorkle, 52, about his draw to photography. "My uncle was a freelance photographer, worked for different newspapers. He taught me a lot. I always had a knack or calling for photographs.
"Illiterate due to dyslexia until he was 42, McCorkle used his uncle’s know-how and the knowledge of local photography clubs to learn the business, and worked as a photographer for the now-defunct Bellaire Texan newspaper for five years in the 1970s.
But after 20 years behind the camera — and besides having the chance to meet the Queen of England and take shots of skydivers from an airplane — it’s the historical photography that McCorkle loves the best. The photos, particularly those of children at play in the 1950s, remind him of what Bellaire was once about.
"I’ve always gotten a pleasure of restoring the history (of Bellaire)," said McCorkle. "And," he added, "hearing the stories" behind the photographs.
McCorkle is a Bellaire native and has lived in the city his whole life. Like some longtime residents, he regrets Bellaire’s loss of the intimate community environment as it continues to grow. "You don’t see kids playing in the street like I was.
"In 1961, it was common for the neighborhood children to race their bicycles down the hills being constructed as part of the Southwest Freeway and the West South Loop, prompting mothers to tell their children to "go play on the freeway," he said.
"It was a great time to be a kid in Bellaire," he said.
McCorkle is also turning to a study of Bellaire’s current environment in a collection of photographs he called "In the Shadow of Bellaire," an ongoing project of 50 photos in which he looks at old houses "sandwiched" in between larger new houses.
"We’re getting away from the small town little Bellaire," he said. But through his photography, both historical and current, McCorkle hopes to capture that life that still exists that moves him in southwest Houston — both its changes and its memories.