McAllen native named San Antonio Artist of the Year

A different vision

Mcallen native Ansen Seale in Asia, showing others his slitscan camera, which he invented out of several other machines. Seale was named the 2020 San Antonio Artist of the Year. (Courtesy photo)

Ansen Seale’s passion for photography sparked when his mother let him transform their home’s guest bathroom into a darkroom to develop his pictures.

He was a McAllen High School student then, and often used the critters he found in his backyard — lizards, palm trees, frogs or birds — as his subjects. Now 59 and living in San Antonio, Seale’s camerawork has captured many parts of the world, including Rome, Berlin, London and Naples. It has even earned him several accolades, the most recent being named the 2020 San Antonio Artist of the Year by the San Antonio Art League and Museum.

With his father formerly a conductor of the Valley Symphony Orchestra for almost 30 years, and his mother a poet with several published books, his path to a career in art was assured, Seale said.

“I did not have much chance to be anything else, because both of my parents were artists,” he said, later recalling how his father would wake him and his two other brothers early in the morning for piano lessons.

Though his father was a musician, and his mother a writer, Seale was drawn to a different mode of art: photography.

“People always think that photography is reality, that it is a copy of reality,” he said. “In a way that’s true, but it’s really so much more because the photographer can make so many decisions about how they want to photograph, and what subject and what angle and what time and the technique they choose to use. It’s just a way to have a window on the world.”

Seale’s photography offers a unique view, because his work may look like he manipulated the featured subjects, but it instead is the work of a one-of-a-kind camera he built. After the photo is taken, he does not distort it any further.

In 2000, he created what he calls a “slitscan” camera out of the parts of several different machines.

“I put together parts and pieces of old printers, scanners, movie cameras and made this Frankenstein sort of thing,” Seale said. “And to my surprise, it turned out well.”

The camera operates similarly to a panoramic camera in that it captures one narrow slice of a scene at a time. However, the camera was meant to stay still, piecing together the changes of one sliver of sight into one photograph.

“I set it up and it looks at just one little spot,” he said. “So if it is looking at a sidewalk, and people walk past it, it is scanning them. So, it created a very strange and interesting perspective of movement.”

He continued: “What my camera does is it kind of subtracts one dimension of the photograph, the horizontal dimension, and replaces that dimension with the dimension of time,” he said. “So, it is kind of like a time exposure.”

“Rome Termini” (Ansen Seale)

Seale has taken his slitscan camera on trips all around the world, including China in 2011, when he was selected to join the 14th annual China International Photographic Art Exhibition. He was one of five photographers from Texas who attended the event, and while he was there, he created his series, “China in Motion.”

When deciding where to set his camera, Seale said he considers two things: the background, and movement.

“The background is important because it gets repeated over and over, so I looked for an interesting pattern,” he said. “Then I look for people just getting about their daily lives.”

He explained that after setting up the camera, the art is no longer in his hands.

“I never know what I am going to get, and that is the fun part of it,” he later added. “I can set up my camera in the right place and right time, but I never can really control what is going on.”

The artist moved from the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio in 1979 when he attended Trinity University to study studio art and broadcast communications. Seale’s art can be spotted all around the city, including at his alma mater, and at airports, theaters and hospitals.

Seale added that his series, “Ever Wonder,” which features wildlife, is an ode to his childhood in the Valley.

“Whole Train” (Ansen Seale)

“I grew up in the Valley and nature was a huge part of my upbringing, we all lived surrounded by acres of oranges and grapefruit,” he said. “It was sort of like a natural playground where we could go out into the orchards and get lost.”

Another series Seale has is called “Trains.”

“Trains are a perfect subject, because the background isn’t moving and the trains are moving, so the train is sort of scanning itself,” he said.

Seale also founded Seale Photography in 1996, in which he takes photos of other artists’ works. As he continues to travel and photograph the world, his fascination for cameras stays the same.

“Cameras are really amazing instruments, and I always thought that my slitscan camera was sort of like a microscope or telescope that allowed us to see things that our human eyes are not able to see,” he said. “It extends our vision into a different realm. The slitscan camera kind of expands our vision of time.”

Seale’s art can be viewed through his website: