Byrd Moore Williams IV was born into the world with the same name as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Besides being blood-related, he has another direct connection to each one — photography.
Since the 1880s, a Byrd Williams has been photographing Texas life. Four generations have captured everything from landscape work to art and social science. Together, that’s more than 400,000 photographs, letters and journals.
This week on Frame of Mind, Dallas filmmaker Mark Birnbaum takes us through Williams IV’s efforts to preserve his family history in the documentary Proof.
“When I woke up, they just said you’re Byrd and here’s a camera,” said Williams in the film.
Watch Frame of Mind Producer Bart Weiss interview Mark Birnbaum, the filmmaker, in this week’s episode, Proof:
Williams IV’s photography roots go deep in North Texas. His great-grandfather owned a dry goods store and sold postcards and cameras in Gainesville. Byrd II was an engineer and photographed landscape and construction sites where he worked. One of his photos even included Pancho Villa in Juarez in 1915. And Williams IV’s father, Byrd III, owned a photo service in Fort Worth for over 50 years.
Williams IV knew early on that he would continue to carry the torch. He fell in love with photography after his father gave him a Leica IIIc camera. He took a photo of his twin sister, Pam, which caught the eye of his father, and he began to develop photos at their photo lab. The father and son connection grew stronger.
“He [Byrd III] really in his heart wanted to be a photojournalist like Cartier-Bresson and be a writer,” said Williams in the film. “And he tried at that, but couldn’t make a good enough living. Later, after I began to show his work, he secretly loved it.”
Williams IV has built a career in art photography and by showcasing the work of four generations in various art exhibitions. He later became a photography professor and author. In 2019, he held an exhibition called The Walking Dead. For the exhibition, he took photos of everyday people on a 19th-century camera.
Today, the Byrd Williams Family Photo Collection sits on the fourth floor of UNT’s Willis Library in Special Collections.
The film features two sides of Williams IV’s life: the photographer and the heritage preserver.
“There was that— shooting Byrd shooting in the studio and on the street,” Birnbaum said. “And then there was the experience of the archive, of sorting, of opening boxes and finding out what’s in this next envelope and who shot this…”
But through discovering his family letters and journals, Williams IV found lies and scary truths. He was always told that his older brother died by suicide. In the film, he uncovers that his brother was shot by the police while trying to steal a motorcycle.
“I don’t think I can hide anything,” said Williams in the film talking about the accuracy in his family history. “I don’t think I can smooth anything over.”
Through it all, he’s keep the family story truthful. Now and for generations after, there’s Proof of this one Texas family.