Five men in basketball shorts, b&w photo by Bill Wood, 1960s.
UPDATE: Studio 360 interviews Diane Keaton tomorrow for an on-air feature on Bill Wood., Jr. and his photos.
It’s been written up in The New York Times, by Larry McMurtry in the New York Review of Books and now by VSL (Very Short List), the online service that sends you notices of cool things they’ve found (created by Kurt Anderson, the brains and voice behind Studio 360). It’s Bill Wood’s Business, the book and exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York created, in part, by Diane Keaton.
Twenty years ago, the actress (and photographer) bought up the archives of a Fort Worth camera studio, the Bill Wood Photo Company. The archives consisted of 20,000 images taken from 1937 to Wood’s death in 1973. Bill Wood, Jr. provided commercial photographic services to Fort Worth-area businesses, studio portraits and even cameras, flash bulbs and photo finishing to amateurs. His photos provide a deadpan, encyclopedic record of mid-century Fort Worth as it climbed out of the Depression and took off during the ’50s: car showrooms, grocery store promotions, weddings, business openings(“Aerial Blight Control”?), pet portraits, grey-haired basketball team members looking particularly natty wearing black socks, street shoes and, apparently, their boxer shorts under their gym trunks — anything his customers wanted.
Bill Wood was a workman-like photographer, not really an artist, but there is an unusual artistry here.
Put together by Keaton and her frequent collaborator, independent curator and writer Marvin Heiferman, the book and exhibition include 210 photos that, together, have a strangely haunting effect, despite all the cheerful, bland normality on display. The Times‘ Ken Johnson tries to explain:
Ms. Keaton and Mr. Heiferman admit that Mr. Wood was not a great artist. Proficient but unimaginative, he shot each subject straight on with his large-format camera, achieving lucid yet unremittingly banal images. There is no evidence that he had any higher artistic ambitions. The portrait that emerges from Mr. Heiferman’s catalog essay, based partly on conversations with Mr. Wood’s two daughters, is of a hard-working businessman, joiner of clubs and family man who strove only to satisfy his customers’ needs….
Mr. Heiferman gets closer to the truth when he observes how uncomfortable many of Mr. Wood’s subjects look. Two trumpet players in identical blazers and bow ties look so nervous you’d think they were posing for a police lineup. The image of a supervisor stiffly lecturing his attentive staff on custodial routines is like a still from a zombie movie. The smiling girl photographed outdoors wearing her dental retainer is poignant just because she is so awkwardly guarded. Intimacy was not Mr. Wood’s forte.
What is captivating and often funny is the gap between what he evidently meant to do and what he did. It appears that he meant to create reassuring images for his customers, pictures that affirmed their identities, values and world. Today, however, it looks more as if he captured feelings of absurdity, unease, alienation and grief.
In short, Mr. Wood probably saw very little of this in his work. We see it now — thanks to Keaton and Heiferman. It’s rather like what Jorge Luis Borges says about Kafka: Once we’ve read him, it’s impossible not to see, say, Shakespeare’s Macbeth without feeling certain scenes are “Kafkaesque.”
This isn’t (always) a case of our “reading back into” a work something that wasn’t “originally” there. It’s more akin to the experience many of us encounter growing up: “Oh, now I know what my parents meant.” It takes different understandings, different contexts, to make us see things anew. No one ever wrote, for example, that Milton clearly must have meant for Lucifer in Paradise Lost to be disturbingly appealing until the Romantics and their Byronic anti-heroes came along.
The Special Collections in the University of Texas at Arlington Library has about 6,400 b&w prints by Bill Wood. The New York exhibition runs through Sept. 7