The iconic photograph of the legendary Vaughan Brothers – Jimmie and Stevie Ray – sitting on a couch, smiling, arms over each other’s shoulders and flanked by electric guitars was taken by Scott Van Osdol and Jeff Rowe in spring 1984.
Perhaps no other photograph captures the public’s romanticized image of the blues guitarists in harmony and symmetry. Brotherly love, not the sibling rivalry.
A signed print is on display at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, part of the new exhibition, “The Songwriters: Sung and Unsung Heroes of The Wittliff.”
The Austin photographers who took it knew they’d captured something special — “brotherly affection and, generally, good feelings,” said Rowe.
The setting that long-ago day was a little stone house where Jimmie lived, at the corner of Ford Street and Goodrich Avenue in the Zilker neighborhood of Austin.
Van Osdol and Rowe were on assignment for Third Coast magazine for a sesquicentennial edition. They would also photograph Jerry Jeff Walker for the issue and other notables.
It was early in the day.
“It wasn’t a long, drawn-out shoot,” recalled Rowe, 71, about the Vaughan Brothers session, which was shot with Pentax 6 x 7 camera and 1600 flash pack. “It was pretty short.”
In fact, it was a one-roll shoot; ten frames in all. Van Osdol remembered the selected shot came at the end of the camera roll. All were taken with the brothers seated on the ornamental rococo couch which was moved in front of a wall decorated with photos.
“We just asked them to take a seat. And they sat down like you would expect them to, just sort of stiff,” added Van Osdol, 68.
In his mind, the photographer was going – no, no, no, no. The perfect picture would require a little staging.
“Here, you’re brothers. Sit together. Put your arms around each other,” Van Osdol recalled about how he directed them. Jeff Rowe had the idea to frame them with the electric guitars.
The Vaughan Brothers went along with it. They certainly weren’t divas or on a star trip. “They were real human,” said Rowe, who photographed Jimmie Vaughan a couple of other times; Van Osdol photographed the Fabulous Thunderbirds over the years.
“When Stevie came out of rehab, he had a party at Chuy’s down by the lake, and we were invited. We took him a print at that point. We have not shared it with a lot of people. We’ve kept a close hold,” Van Osdol said. Jimmie Vaughan and a handful of others also received prints.
“(Stevie) loved it. And it was good seeing him at that party sober. He was not drinking,” said Van Osdol. The photographer doesn’t remember, however, if Stevie Ray was drinking at the time the photo on the couch was taken.
In the end, the black and white photograph is another layer of the brothers’ mystique, a snapshot in time of the complicated relationship.
For historical reference, the Van Osdol-Rowe photograph predates the Vaughan Brothers’ only studio album collaboration, “Family Style.” The ill-fated album was released in September 1990, shortly after Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin on August 27, 1990.
In 1984, there was peace in the family. “The body language is really good,” Van Osdol said. “Not only the obvious thing of with arms around each other but look at the tilt of their heads and the symmetry of their legs crossed.”
Rowe noted the relaxed “musculature of their faces.”
“They’re not distressed by this process. They’re enjoying the process,” Rowe added.
The brothers did not receive a lot of direction about their wardrobe for the photo. They answered the door dressed as they’re shown. No doubt, they were conscious of their public images.
Stevie Ray was wearing one of his favorite hats and some cool leather boots. Jimmie was wearing a mariachi-inspired outfit. He was fond of that look, Rowe recalled.
“I didn’t have any real expectations walking into the shoot,” Rowe said. Van Osdol has a vague recollection of perhaps talking to Jimmie on the phone before the shoot and requesting he wear “the suit of lights.”
Nearly 40 years later, it really doesn’t matter. The photo is perfection. “At the time we took it, I knew it was a keeper,” said Van Osdol. And in the world of photography and legends, that’s the ultimate takeaway.