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The Byrd Williams Collection at the University of North Texas contains more than 10,000 prints and 300,000 negatives, accumulated by four generations of Texas photographers, all named Byrd Moore Williams. Beginning in the 1880s in Gainesville, the four Byrds photographed customers in their studios, urban landscapes, crime scenes, Pancho VillaÍs soldiers, televangelists, and whatever aroused their unpredictable and wide-ranging curiosity. When Byrd IV sat down to choose a selection from this dizzying array, he came face to face with the nature of mortality and memory, his own and his familyÍs. In some cases these photos are the only evidence remaining that someone lived and breathed on this earth. The 193 photos selected here are organized into thematic sections such as ñLandscapes,î ñViolence and Religion,î and ñDarkness.î They are significant not just for the range of subjects, but for the inclusion of a variety of examples of the evolving photographic technology from the 1880s to the present. This book is an unprecedented portrait of both photographic history and the history of Texas, as well as a record of one unique family. Roy FlukingerÍs Foreword places the photographs in a historical context, and Anne Wilkes TuckerÍs Afterword discusses the ethics of memory and preservation.

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Photographs

ePub

WALKING INTO THIS ARCHIVE is to walk among the dead. Many I knew and many I am just getting to know through their words and faces, but now I am one of the last remaining survivors in this Borgesian library of images. It was fiendishly comical when I noticed the irony of what has taken place: Middle class transubstantiation. Instead of bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, four generations of my forebears’ bodies and blood have turned into paper and silver.

For me, photography is about death. It didn't used to be, but I'm sixty-four and everybody in the room is dead and I can't remember why I was so obsessed with saving their lives in two-dimensional facsimile. Perhaps all these years I have been trying to nail down what Ian McEwen refers to as our brief spark of consciousness.

It was never about the money; I could have done better mowing lawns. There was always this urgency about it: save all historic buildings, remember all the faces, stand on all the street corners, save everybody's toilet, share my experience with posterity, I was alive goddammit.

 

The Family Album

ePub

WALKING INTO THIS ARCHIVE is to walk among the dead. Many I knew and many I am just getting to know through their words and faces, but now I am one of the last remaining survivors in this Borgesian library of images. It was fiendishly comical when I noticed the irony of what has taken place: Middle class transubstantiation. Instead of bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, four generations of my forebears’ bodies and blood have turned into paper and silver.

For me, photography is about death. It didn't used to be, but I'm sixty-four and everybody in the room is dead and I can't remember why I was so obsessed with saving their lives in two-dimensional facsimile. Perhaps all these years I have been trying to nail down what Ian McEwen refers to as our brief spark of consciousness.

It was never about the money; I could have done better mowing lawns. There was always this urgency about it: save all historic buildings, remember all the faces, stand on all the street corners, save everybody's toilet, share my experience with posterity, I was alive goddammit.

 

Landscape

ePub

Self portrait on college notebook, Austin, Texas. BYRD II 1903

“The edge of the photograph dissects familiar forms, and shows the unfamiliar fragment. It creates the shapes that surround objects. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of this picture's geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table.”

–JOHN SZARKOWSKI

Byrd Williams II began to photograph the landscape around the turn of the century. When he finished his bachelor's degree in Austin, he took a number of survey and construction projects around the west in search of permanent employment. This could entail any number of duties from drafting to site photography of project progress. During this period he voraciously photographed the American landscape with an eye for visual starkness and geometric efficiency.

Letter From Mary Alice Williams to her son Byrd II

 

Postcard

ePub

BYRD WILLIAMS SENIOR, A TENNESSEAN ENTREPRENEUR, sold his hardware store in 1880 and moved to Texas for a new economic start. Byrd purchased a small farm and then promptly opened a hardware/dry goods/general store on the south side of the square in Gainesville, Texas, where he hawked a wide variety of products including photographic items. He began to shoot his own photographs, printing them on the new Kodak postcard stock and offering them for sell on his counter top: The BYRD photography endeavor started here.

Byrd's vendor franchises supplied him with all the latest in darkroom paraphernalia, viewing devices, and archiving materials such as fancy family photo albums. By the time the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago rolled around in 1893 the hobby of postcard collecting was in full tilt. Around this time, the US government lowered the postage rate on cards to a penny. The “craze” became an industry.

Small towns could not, for economic reasons, attract the large-scale publishing companies that might invest in “Eiffel Tower-type” tourist postcards. The equipment and materials were available to produce small runs of local interest postcards, so Byrd and his sons began to roam the state in search of regional tourist attractions.

 

The Great Depression

ePub

Byrd III's diary

BYRD III WAS A JOURNALISM STUDENT at Texas Christian University from 1933 through 1937. He started photography in the early 1920s with a crummy, mail order toy camera and eventually acquired a Foth Derby, allowing a more detailed view of his visual experiences. The world was his now, and from that moment on he photographed continually around his neighborhood in south Fort Worth. During the Great Depression he shot extensively in the central business district of Fort Worth with his newly acquired Leica. Dad really hit his stride as an artist during this period, utilizing the sort of high modernist, decisive moment image structure prevalent at the time.

It was during this period that an adventuresome spirit took hold and, without warning, he ran off to the Great Lakes and settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He never talked much about this part of his life. I know from his diaries and photographs that he married briefly, bought an unfinished wooden sailboat to live on, and gave his best effort at being a writer/photographer/journalist.

 

Studio

ePub

Dad's Westcliff Studio

DAD WORKED HIMSELF TO DEATH for 50 years in a Mom and Pop style photographic business. I was there for 30 of them. Our family was of the secular variety whose devotional piety was not directed toward any religious enterprise but rather to that postwar American work ethic that drove the entrepreneurial mental prison of the 1950s. We were in the evidence business. A wedding happened and for $59.95 you could buy the artifact proof from us. Indeed, participant testimony was piffle compared to full-color documents filled with aunts and uncles and in-laws and drunks. Same with the portrayal of family happiness. Stiff topographical maps of faces with awkward smirks in bad suits that displayed, however sterile, the family unit intact. One wonders what posterity will think of our culture 500 years hence. All 300,000,000 of us in the same J. C. Penney's uniform, the same sneer, the same phony grouping of eternal oneness. It may be a good thing that the Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans had no Olin Mills. These records of our appearance, our existence, even our sentience will become our headstones.

 

People

ePub

Title page to Byrd III photograph album

THE FACES THAT INHABIT ONE'S LIFE are also connected to a mutually shared experience, whether it is an insider that occupies the fabric of your reality or a transient in and out of your orbit like a waiter in a restaurant, never to be seen again.

All of the Byrd Williamses made portraits for a variety of reasons. Sometimes as a hired hand for vanity, sometimes for editorial information, but much of the time it was for nothing. For lack of a better term, it was for art.

Shortly after arriving in Gainesville, Texas, my great-grandfather set about photographing people he encountered. An untrained but enthusiastic amateur, his work included carefully executed records of local acquaintances, an endeavor common to the new “roll film” era photography was entering.

By 1885, Granddad had taken up the hobby and was encouraged by earning extra money shooting portraits of locals across the range of hamlets between Fort Worth and the Red River. Small communities within wagon distance of Gainesville that featured churches and the occasional town square such as Myra, Era, Muenster, Henrietta, Sanger, Bowie, and Whitesboro. Wherever he lived, my grandfather continued making two-dimensional replicas of people's faces for the rest of his life.

 

Non-People

ePub

Ancient Egyptian bar vs. modern French Bar

I LOVE THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE ENCLOSURES that humans occupy. The places where they sleep, eat, and work say more about humanity than a facial portrait can. For decades I have found comfort in mapping these interior spaces for commissions and curiosity. The preponderance of this large body of work is mostly personal images that are less art than artifact. More like utilitarian stamp collecting.

I started photographing my grade school friends’ rooms in the 1950s, and this subject matter is still my main work today. All three of my photographic ancestors made time exposures of the rooms and spaces they encountered, one of the first being a hardware store in Gainesville, Texas, in the late 1880s.

Sometimes there are people in them, both blurry and sharp, and sometimes they are devoid of life. I tend to like the lifeless ones best because then the room gets to speak for itself. These enclosures often live longer than the people who worked and lived in them and sometimes the photographs live longer than either, as stated by art critic Janet Tyson:

 

Violence and Religion in Texas

ePub

Byrd IV, Christmas and birthday 1960

Growing up in Texas

Baudelaire is credited with coining the term modernity (modernité) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.

Texas is not unique to America in its unencumbered love of firearms and openly devotional mindset. The best I can tell, these cultural attributes are salient to any of the Southern states, at least in proportion to the Northeast and Northwest. The Byrd Williams archive is rife with photographic evidence of violence and religion throughout. I would be remiss not to address this aspect of our heritage.

Cultures evolve. My family was never very religious but we were armed to the teeth. I always loved cameras, but for the life of me I cannot remember why we had so many guns. I somehow lost that meme, maybe because our societal norms are shifting. My immediate ancestors were not particularly racist, violent, gender biased, homophobic, or fundamentalist about any ideology. By hobby and trade we were “observers” but close examination of the visual and written evidence indicates complicity in many of the above areas. I am chagrined about this. One could pass the buck and say, “Oh well, it was just the way it was in those days,” but my life of anthropological scrutiny prevents this. Photographing people carries with it a hint of exploitation. I offer myself for the same.

 

Night

ePub

WHEN I WAS A KID MY FRIENDS AND I WOULD HANG OUT on the street corners at night under the mercury vapor lights that provided a 200-foot circle of pasty illumination. If one of us had a paper route with the Fort Worth Press or Star Telegram, we were allowed to remain until sunrise when the newspapers had to be rolled and thrown to neighborhood subscribers. Our parents were more than happy to encourage our entrepreneurial spirit, inadvertently handing us the key to the city…at night.

For a twelve-year-old, it was one's first taste of unencumbered freedom. The summer sidewalks were still warm but the breeze was cool and no authority what-so-ever was in sight. Of course there was a bit of early ‘60s mischief, but for the most part, it was just fun being there.

I continued to roam the city at night for the rest of my life, as did my Dad. We never talked about the source of our fascination with gloomy urban spaces, but I know mine and can guess his. Cities are lit like movie sets.

 

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