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From Darkroom To Digital, From Cancer To Hope

Master photojournalist Guy Reynolds converted to the iPhone in a big way. Then he took it along with him when he worked Meals on Wheels.

by Jerome Weeks 6 Apr 2017 6:38 PM
Guy Reynolds

A photo editor at the 'Dallas Morning News' for twenty years, Guy Reynolds estimates he's probably shot more than 1.8 million frames. He's currently got more than 5,000 images on Instagram, another 18,000 or so on Flickr, 40,000 in the Cloud. Reynolds fell in love with photography as a teen in Dallas but it was a fluke that led him into journalism at UT-Austin.  The News won its second Pulitzer Prize for photography during Reynolds' tenure there. Now he's got a new pop-up show about Meals on Wheels.

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Guy Reynolds has been a photo editor at the ‘Dallas Morning News’ for 20 years. He’s old school. He was the last person to use the newspaper’s darkroom – before it got turned into a video studio. During Reynolds’ tenure at the ‘News,’ the paper’s photographers have won two Pulitzer Prizes. But as an editor, he had to give up everyday camerawork. Then iPhones got better and he got on Instragram. And Reynolds volunteered for Meals on Wheels.

He climbs into his Prius at St. Philips School and Community Center this morning. He’s already picked up today’s allotment of food to deliver for Meals on Wheels in South Dallas. He’s checking out the list of addresses on the route that he’ll drive for the first time in months.

“Well, this is really shorter than it was before,” he says, scanning the papers, sounding worried. “The two that were on the apartment on South Avenue are off. I had two on Wendelkin, and now there’s only one. So in six months, this thing has completely changed. It’s changed quite a bit.”

‘Meals on Wheels: Photographs by Guy Reynolds‘ at the Work Room at Photographique through Friday, April 7th.

Familiar names are gone. The people may simply have moved. Or they may have died. Many Meals on Wheels clients are shut-ins, too sick, too old to get out of bed. Some are handicapped. Some are simply alone and poor. People zipping through South Dallas neighborhoods can easily conclude there’s no garbage pick-up in these parts. Or the residents are too lazy to clean up their front yards. But here, you see pillows and bedding cluttering up a curb, it’s often not waiting for trash service. It’s an eviction. More than 40 percent of Meals on Wheels clients live below the poverty level.

“What does it mean ‘slow’?'” I ask, looking at the list.

“They’re slow getting to the door. You gotta wait. ‘NH’ means ‘not home.’ So you leave it at this other address here. But I know her, she’s almost always there.”

Guy Reynolds picks up food for Meals on Wheels

Picking up this morning’s Meals on Wheels at St. Philips. The blue coolers mean it’s going to be a ‘cold meal’ day. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Reynolds has been a lifeline for these clients — some he counts as friends — and now some have simply vanished. It upsets him — as does the uproar over the Trump administration’s proposed budget, which would cut funding for programs like Meals on Wheels because they’re not “effective.”

“Effective?” Reynolds exclaims. “I may be the last person to ask, but there are some people I know, that was the only meal they’d have that day.”

For three years, Reynolds volunteered for Meals on Wheels while also taking pictures along the three routes he’d follow and, when the clients permitted him, even some of the more than forty people he met regularly. This week, a pop-up exhibition of those photos is the inaugural show for the Work Room. It’s the brand-new gallery at Photographique, the full-service photo lab in Deep Ellum. For years now, Reynolds has put some 40,000 images up on the Cloud, more than 5,000 on Instagram, another 18,000 or so on Flickr. It was Alison Smith, a former ‘News’ photographer, who suggested selecting some for a show.

“I feel like I encouraged him to get on Instagram, back in the day,” she says from the back seat. “He fought it so hard.”

“Yeah, you did,” Reynolds agrees.

“But he has been explosive with the iPhone,” says Smith. “It just seemed like we had to get them out in the public and share them.”

Guy Reynolds talks with a Meals on Wheels client

Reynolds with a client who learned to make pen-and-ink drawings of birds while serving time – for drug convictions. Today, they wouldn’t even be felonies. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Smith got Michael Thomas, editor of ‘1814 Magazine,‘ to sponsor the show. 1814 is the Dallas-based, biannual publication that’s big on high-style, high-art photography.

“They did it all without me,” Reynolds insists about the gallery show. “Alison contacted me and said, ‘We’ve got this.’ Because she’s a good friend.”

Smith and Thomas ended up putting the show together for the same reason Reynolds has been gone from his Meals on Wheels route. Last fall, the 60-year-old photojournalist learned he had cancer of the esophagus. When he was tested for that, they found he also had liver cancer. The tumor on his liver was the size of a fist. He’d already been suffering from depression and had lost nearly 20 pounds.

“That’s largely why I left it in their hands,” he says. “I had other preoccupations, let’s say.”

But since September, he’s been enduring chemotherapy. He has a port in his chest to make the drug drip easier.  And now Reynolds feels good enough to take on one of his old routes. Volunteers like Reynolds are encouraged not to stick around with clients, who need to remain anonymous, not draw too much attention. But a number of the clients want to hear about his health. An older man’s eager to show Reynolds his pen-and-ink drawings. One young man calls Reynolds an inspiration.

“When we first met him, he was just a joy,” he says over a yapping dog. “So … you know, you gotta keep on keeping on. And he’s encouragement, so we just gotta keep on going.”

Guy Reynolds delivering Meals on Wheels in South Dallas

Visits to apartment complexes can include several stops. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Reynolds fell in love with photography back when he was 15 and bought a Minolta from his earnings as a ‘Morning News’ paperboy. And then came his first time in a darkroom during a summer workshop.

“You don’t forget that first time you see a photograph come to life in a tray of developer,” he says. “It was an instant and long-term hook.”

It helped that his mother owned a bookstore in Richardson with photo books by masters like William Eggleston. Elliot Erwhit. Cartier-Bresson. Despite all that, when he got admitted to UT-Austin, he had little intention to study photography. But he needed to find a major without a language requirement. Journalism it was.

A couple years ago, Reynolds estimated that – including all his years on newspapers in North Carolina, Baton Rouge and Indianapolis – he’d taken 1.8 million shots. And as an editor, he’s probably looked through hundreds of thousands more. Reynolds is a modest man; he won’t even call himself an artist. But both Smith and I insist his career proves he has a real eye – he’s been picking photos that win Pulitzers. And then there’s his own work.  The photos often have an absurdist, deadpan humor. A focus on oddball details.

“It’s so quirky,” says Smith. “He doesn’t miss anything. That’s what made Guy a great editor. He’d find things in my shoots that I didn’t even see, and one of those won me a big award.”

Guy Reynolds looks for his blind Meals on Wheels client

Peering in to see if the blind woman is still here, the one he photographed in the top image on her front porch. But she’s gone. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Reynolds did struggle long and hard against the popular, low-grade digital work that has flooded our world with selfies, what was once dismissed as “iPhoneography.” He does miss the darkroom, he admits, and points out that, like vinyl records, film and darkroom development, even more antiquarian pursuits like pinhole cameras and the collodion process – they’ve all been enjoying something of a boutique renaissance.

What convinced him to go cheap and digital, he says, was the quality of the iPhone 6 camera. At times, he’ll still lug around a vintage 4 x 5 Graflex Crown Graphic. It’s one of those bellows contraptions out of a 1940s noir film, the ones with a sardonic police shutterbug talking about ‘dames’ and popping flash bulbs to photograph a murder victim. But it’s the iPhone that Reynolds used to shoot his Meals on Wheels routes.

“I can’t believe how well those images blew up that large,” he says of the color-rich prints.

Reynolds’ Meals on Wheels images feature photos of loose dogs. South Dallas has a horrendous stray-dog problem – hardly a block goes by without at least one or two nosing about – but it’s not going away any time soon. Not until someone can figure out a cheaper security device for neighborhood residents. “Oh, but he protects me,” one female client says affectionately of the medium-sized barkathon that greets us. “Praise God, he protects me.” Most of the clients’ dogs are familiar with Reynolds by now, but he’s been gone for while and he’s got strangers with him, so we all get thorough warnings, stern talking-tos and huffy farewells.

Dogs bark at Guy Reynolds on his Meals on Wheels route

Say hello to my little friends. “These are more bark than bite,” Reynolds assures us. Photo: Jerome Weeks

One of Reynolds’ most commanding Meals on Wheels images is of a blind woman sitting still, dead center, on a front porch. It’s so geometric and nearly monochromatic, the shot feels almost carved from stone. The blind woman’s house is not listed on his route today, but Reynolds makes a special effort to stop by. He’s got a couple meals leftover. But there’s a wooden crate filled with broken furniture in the driveway, plus A/C window units. And there are plastic sheets taped over the windows. Even before he stops the car, Reynolds knows she’s gone. He goes up and peers inside anyway, just to make sure. There’s a city department sticker on one window and a brand-new electric box on the side of the house.

All of this can sound grim and much of it is. It simply is. Dallas is arranged so most of us never see such things. But Reynolds does. He captures stark details like surrealistic mysteries: a trail of sofa cushions leading across an empty field or the large number of tree trunks just sticking up everywhere. The city cut down the trees when they blew over, but the homeowners can’t afford to have the stumps removed or ground down. Some streets look like stunted forests.

And even here, there’s humor. In one shot, a yard sign on Easter proclaims ‘He is Risen!’ Attached to the first sign, a second one warns ‘No Parking or Standing.’ And next to that sign is another that faintly reads ‘Bad dog.’

For our sit-down interview, we’re in a sunbright office at the ‘News.’ Pretty much everything has been cleared out. The entire staff of the ‘News’ is moving across town to the old Dallas Central Library. That’s why whole sections of cubicles and offices look abandoned — much like a South Dallas neighborhood. But now they look even more abandoned than they’ve looked the past decade as the paper downsized again and again. Some rooms are little more than stacks of old chairs, phones and desks. “We’re supposed to be moving June 1st,” Reynolds says with a smile. “But I don’t think anyone believes it’ll happen by then.”

Standing amidst all the dusty computers, all this battered history, it’s hard not to feel the pull of ‘end of an era, end of an industry’ sentiments. But Smith, who’s been inside the new home, says it’s actually impressive, even cool. The library was, once upon a time, one of the sleekest, mid-century modern buildings in all of Dallas. So now, it’s perfectly ‘Mad Men’ retro. Plus, with the Statler Hilton next door getting a major re-do and a Trump chain hotel possibly going in nearby, that entire corner of downtown is about to get lively.

Guy Reynolds at the Dallas Morning News photography office

In his office at the News, getting ready to move to the paper’s new home across town. All the equipment here actually belongs to the radio interviewer. Photo: Jerome Weeks

About his cancer – his own re-do – Reynolds says, “When I hear what other people have gone through, I know I’m lucky. Those first weeks were bad, but now I’m switching to pills, so that’ll be easier.” He’s responded well to the chemo. The tumors are already half their original size. They get small enough, the doctors will cut them out.

This week’s pop-up gallery show is hardly Reynolds’ first exhibition. He’s had dozens, including a curated one at the Bath House Cultural Center five years ago.

“I’ve had a show in a hair salon,” he says with a smile. “I’ve had a show at two restaurants. So I’m not proud, I’ll show photos anywhere. That’s what it’s about being a photographer. You don’t take photos just to look at [them] yourself.

You know, you want to share them.”

Sharing his photos. It’s a little like – just a little like — driving around South Dallas, sharing meals.

You mentioned being bipolar. When were you diagnosed?

[Chuckles.] I was diagnosed bipolar in 1991, shortly after moving to Indianapolis and having a major clinical depression, which was — I was 35 and it was the first time I had any problem with depression. I had one previous episode when I was in high school that the doctor decided was a manic episode even though it lasted about a month or so. I mean, my parents had to take me out of school. I mean, I was manic. Out of control. I’m 60 now and I can clearly see what I was like at 15.

What were you like?

I was incredibly hyperactive, not sleeping, not eating. Waking my mom up at 3 a.m. to have somebody to talk to. Like I said, my dad was a state representative, and he was in Austin at the time, so they took me out of school and sent me to stay with him for awhile. But that was at age 15. Twenty years later, I have a depression, and the doctor, based on my description of that episode, said, ‘Well, you’re bipolar then.’ And he prescribed Lithium. And I never agreed with that diagnosis until about ten years ago, the doctor I had here moved out of state, so I no longer had a doctor relationship to get my meds. So I weaned myself off.

I was smart enough to know, you don’t just quit taking it, you know. I reduced the amount over a period of about three months. And about a month after I quit taking it, I’m in this major hyper mode, which as far as I knew, I’d never had before – I never thought about when I was 15. I was getting up before dawn to mow the yard. I just had to be doing something. I was online at 4:30 am and then got to the golf course before the sun came up because I wanted to be the first to tee off so I could play real fast.

So I happened to have my annual physical and I go to the doctor, and he calls me a day or so later after the blood work was done, and it was the doctor who called, a nurse will usually call you. He said, You have a real bad thyroid issue and you need to see an endocrinologist right away and I’ll get you an appointment. And I had had a thyroid problem before but wasn’t taking any medication for it.

To cut to the chase: I go to the endocrinologist, and after I describe all this and he does my blood check, he says, ‘You have a minor hypothyroid problem, but you’re having a full-blown manic episode, and you need to get another doctor and get back on your medicine.’ And I did. But we talked that day, and I said, ‘But I like this manic.’ And he laughed, and he said, ‘That’s the problem with creatives, and a lot of them are bipolar, and they like the mania because it fuels their creativity.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is the first time all this actually makes sense to me.’

But I didn’t want to get back on the Lithium because that just kind of flattens you out. Neither high nor low. Which I guess, for people like my wife, that’s what she appreciates. Right now, she puts up with both because I had to quit taking the Lithium a few years later because it was wrecking my kidneys. That’s one of the side effects of Lithium. So now I’m on other stuff. And it’s been  struggle finding something that really works.

So I had been pretty lucky, the past two years, I hadn’t really had a depression until about six weeks ago, right when we were pulling this show together, and they were calling me, and I was blowing them off. Withdrawing, you know – when you’re depressed you don’t even want to get out of bed. I’d go to work and Michael would call and ask, ‘Can we get together and go over these pictures?’ And it was … ‘Not right now.’ So they did it all without me. Alison contacted me and said, ‘We’ve got this.’ Because she’s a good friend.

So she curated the whole thing, went through all those pictures and selected twenty photos out of the pile. And I just saw them the other day and I loved the images she selected.