R.J. Hinkle shows Texas Tech students how to ‘Make a Hand.’
On a predictably windy morning at Texas Tech University, R.J. Hinkle makes his way to the College of Media & Communication. An alumnus of the college, the 12-story building off Flint Avenue is not where Hinkle attended class when he arrived in 1982.
The small two-story building, now home to the National Wind Institute, served as the university's journalism building for decades before the program transitioned from the College of Arts & Sciences into the newly created College of Media & Communication in 2004.
Earning his degree in photo communications, now known as Creative Media Industries, Hinkle spent hundreds of hours in the old buildings' darkroom developing film.
“That always dates me when I visit with students,” Hinkle laughs.
But today the students are not in a darkroom. They sit in a state-of-the-art lab, furnished with Apple computers. As Hinkle begins addressing the group, students look him up on Google.
One student pulls up Hinkle's website, her eyes moving from the crisp and colorful images in front of her to the rugged, laid-back man at the front of the room. She realizes while Hinkle may be unassuming, his photos are certainly not.
Students are curious about Hinkle's technique, favorite shoots and equipment.
That's not what he spends his time on.
“You want my best advice?” he asks the students. “Work your butt off.”
The Original Plan
Hinkle is a West Texan through and through.
Born in Amarillo and brought up in Plains, his plan was always to attend Texas Tech.
After his roommate bailed on him for a full ride elsewhere, though, Hinkle thought twice about moving to Lubbock. Starting off at a small school with a photography scholarship, Hinkle appreciated the financial help but struggled feeling like he belonged.
After one year, he transferred to Texas Tech and got “back to the original plan,” as he says.
And it's a good thing he did. The connections Hinkle made and the opportunities he received at a bigger school gave him the push into the career he wanted. Hinkle worked for the University News and Publications team, now known as the Office of Communications & Marketing. He shot events and editorial content, developing the film in the basement of the Administration building.
“I worked for Carol King (not to be confused with the singer) and Mark Rogers in that job,” Hinkle said. “They had a tremendous impact on my career.”
From there, Hinkle got a job with the University Daily which is now known as the Daily Toreador.
The mentor who made the largest impact on Hinkle was the late Darrel Thomas.
“Darrel was instrumental in the success of generations of photographers from Texas Tech,” Hinkle said. “He could come off as a bit of a curmudgeon at first, but once you got to know him, you found a truly generous soul.”
Hinkle arrived on campus as a 19-year-old who thought he knew everything, he said, but he left with gratitude, humility and an intense work ethic.
The work ethic wasn't necessarily new, though.
Hinkle's father had been a cowboy growing up and raised his son with the values of hard work and responsibility.
“My father's advice to me as I graduated and took my first job at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal was ‘make a hand,'” Hinkle recalled.
Meaning, as a ranch hand, offer help and do the work.
Treasure, Talent and Time
That's what Hinkle did.
He worked as a photojournalist at the local newspaper for two years before moving north and taking a job in Wisconsin. After some time at another publication, an opportunity to work for Quad/Graphics opened.
They came to Hinkle and asked him to interview, impressed with his work.
“I was looking for a new challenge at the time and it seemed like a good fit,” Hinkle said of the job that offered a lot of room for growth.
He took the job and worked out of the studio. Starting as a corporate photographer, he photographed a lot of events and advertisements. He would quickly get through his assignments though and become bored. So instead of twiddling his fingers, he “made a hand” and jumped in where help was needed.
“That became my apprenticeship,” Hinkle said.
Most photographers come out of school and assist for a few years before stepping into the commercial world. But Hinkle forged his own path, finding himself in a leadership role sooner than expected.
“It wasn't by any design,” he said. “I just did what needed to be done and it eventually became my responsibility.”
Hinkle learned the technique of working with 4x5-inch film; he collaborated with a variety of clients and started teaching younger artists as he went.
Eventually he transferred to Quad/Graphics' Dallas office, moving closer to family. He and his wife both had their dream jobs and decided it was time to start their own family. Hinkle was shooting for big-name clients and often traveled to stunning locations for projects.
It was around this time that his good friend, Linda Rutherford, invited him to serve on the alumni advisory committee for the College of Media & Communication.
Hinkle and Rutherford had been at Texas Tech at the same time, keeping in touch over the years since. Rutherford had become the chief administration officer for Southwest Airlines and was serving as president of the alumni advisory committee when she reached out to Hinkle about joining.
“You need to be on this committee,” she told Hinkle in a matter-of-fact tone. “We should all be giving of either our treasure, time or talent.”
“Well, I ain't got no treasure and I'm not so sure about talent,” Hinkle laughed. “But I guess you can have my time.”
That was 2007 and Hinkle remains a member of the committee to this day. It's what put him in that computer lab of young photographers just a few months ago. But he's not speaking about the corporate or agency world anymore.
In 2017, Quad/Graphics shut down its Dallas operation, leaving Hinkle with no job.
“That was a really tough time,” Hinkle said.
Jobs had come easily for the talented artist over the past 30 years. Now, there was nothing but the unknown. As a commercial photographer, there were few jobs and steep competition for the ones that were available.
That's when Hinkle decided to go into business for himself.
“I wish I could take credit for that decision because it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Hinkle said.
With his experience, technique and sociable personality, Hinkle brought on clients quickly and had crew members scrambling to work with him.
In one month, Hinkle made the money he had earned in the last three months with Quad/Graphics. He brought on clients such as Cabela's, Boy Scouts of America, Lucchese Boots and even landed a contract with Southwest Airlines.
Yet, there was a time when he didn't know if freelancing would be feasible long-term.
“Thankfully my wife is very good at what she does and had a stable job during that time,” Hinkle said of his wife who works in human resources leadership. “But we had two kids with college on the horizon. It was scary.”
Hinkle went back to his West Texas roots, re-creating himself and once again, deciding to “make a hand.”
He was determined to work harder and be more intentional than anyone else. His motto became, “Treat clients like friends and crew like family.”
And it worked.
While jobs have been up and down the past seven years, there has always been enough work.
“It's ruined me forever working for someone else again,” Hinkle laughed. “There are months when I'm so busy I can barely catch a break, but then I get down time. I like alternating between those worlds, it works for me.”
Since going freelance, one thing Hinkle has been intentional about is giving other Red Raiders a shot at the industry.
“When I visit campus, I tell students to look me up after they graduate,” Hinkle said. “I can't promise them any work, but if I have a project coming up that I need extra crew on, I'll give them a shot.”
Hinkle's approach made all the difference for Phillip Anderson.
A 2014 graduate from the College of Media & Communication, Anderson moved to Dallas after graduation and reached out to Hinkle. A gig was coming up for a fashion brand and Hinkle needed a few extra hands since it was a big shoot.
“This was a 20- or 30-person crew,” Hinkle said. “So, I figured Phillip could come shadow us and maybe help out a bit.”
Anderson showed up and showed out. He got coffee, swept floors, moved props and worked hard, as Hinkle recalled. Anderson was taking the bus from South Dallas every day all the way up to Addison where the shoot was and walking two miles from the bus stop to the studio.
“By the third day of shooting, the producer and I looked at each other and were like, ‘We can't not pay this kid,'” Hinkle said.
Hinkle may have given Anderson a chance, but the new graduate wasn't leaving anything else up to chance. That one job got him other jobs, which got him more jobs.
“Sometimes I can't even book Phillip anymore,” Hinkle laughs. “We still work together a lot though; he is definitely my first assistant.”
But Hinkle is not surprised.
“Texas Tech graduates have that West Texas work ethic that sets them apart,” Hinkle said.
He also thinks the West Texas landscape gives photographers an added advantage when it comes to seeing beauty beyond the surface.
One artist Hinkle enjoys is Georgia O'Keeffe who did most of her work in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But before she moved to the Land of Enchantment, she worked at a boarding school in Amarillo. In her time there, she was quoted as saying the West Texas landscape was “devoid of transcendence.”
While debatable, it has issued a challenge to artists who have come after O'Keeffe, looking for transcendence where it's hard to find.
“I don't know if I've found it yet, but I've spent a lot of my life looking for it in my projects,” Hinkle said.