Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
There may be no archive in the US quite like the Byrd Williams Family Photo Collection at UNT. It holds the artworks and personal papers of four generations of North Texas photographers. For this week’s Art & Seek Artist Spotlight, Jerome Weeks explored some of the collection with photographer Byrd Williams IV. He has a new book about his and his namesakes’ obsession with preserving images on paper.
A photographic collection that spans 120 years – that’s half the entire life of the United States. Byrd Williams IV says amassing and preserving such a sprawling archive was partly luck. And frankly, it was also something of a family compulsion.
“A grandmother would die,” Williams says, “and then all the sons would be around and say, ‘Let’s throw this stuff away, it’s private stuff.’ And somebody would say, ‘No, we’re not. We’re going to keep it.’ In one house, it grew so big it was under the house, it was in the barn, you know. My family had all their letters, they had all the photographs, they had all the diaries. But I realize we’re kind of hoarders. I mean they’re must be some kind of genetic issue here.”
So sixty-five years ago in Fort Worth, Williams was pretty much born into the photographic art, the archive and the family business: “We had a darkroom at home, and I never thought I was going to be anything else. But I always loved photography, there was never any problem with being in it.”
“I can’t declare this archive unique,” says Anne Wilkes Tucker, “because there are thousands of historical societies in the United States.” Tucker is the curator emerita of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the author of the photo landmark, ‘War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.’ “But I have actually worked in many historical archives — I’m currently working on a project in the Library of Congresss — and I had not, in all my 40 years of research, encountered anything like this archive.”
Why? Because photos don’t last. Most barely survive a generation or two.
“Snapshot albums?” Tucker asks. “They go to the dumpster. Or they fall apart from family use.”
What also marks the Williams Collection as remarkable is not just its size — nearly 400,000 negatives and prints, plus personal papers and objects — not just the quality of the photos or the spread of history the archive covers. It also has a specific location. The Williams family didn’t move much at all — basically just from Gainesville, north of Denton, to Fort Worth — so other than some quick side trips one photographer made to places like Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley, what we have here is a photo archive hugely devoted to North Texas and its history, its people, its buildings. In recent decades, Byrd Williams IV even retraced his father’s footsteps and re-photographed the Fort Worth buildings and street scenes he’d shot some 50 years earlier. So there’s a depth and expansiveness of detail here, a kind of unmatched visual chronicle.
But for all its remarkable qualities, the Williams archive — stored on the fourth floor of UNT’s Willis Library in Special Collections — looks pretty much like what you’d expect: rows of shelves and piles of boxes. Wearing protective white gloves, Byrd Williams IV opens a box that holds a few dozen photos and pulls one out.
“This is Byrd Senior,” he says, meaning the shutterbug who took the picture. “That he photographed of his son, Byrd Jr., in 1904 or ‘5.”
Byrd Senior was the first Byrd Moore Williams, the great-grandfather. He ran a dry goods store that also sold cameras and postcards. He started taking pictures in the 1880s. His son, the second Byrd Williams, was a civil engineer who photographed his construction projects – including one in Juarez in 1915 that had him sharing tequila with Pancho Villa
“And there’s a letter in the collection,” says Williams, “grandmother chewing him out: ‘You’re spending a little too much time down there.'”
Williams’ own father, Byrd Williams III, ran a photo service and portrait studio for 50 years, taking family portraits, even shooting crime scenes for the police department. So the Williams family’s involvement in photography evolved from postcards to family snaps to commercial work to the professional career of Byrd Williams IV. He’s known for his photos of buildings and street scenes. The image on the front page is his photo of the lunch counter at the Texas & Pacific train station in 1985, and there are more in the gallery below (“he’s an exceptional architectural photographer” — Anne Tucker). But Williams has also worked for magazines like ‘Texas Monthly’ and ‘Connoisseur,’ he’s had gallery exhibitions, his works are in art museums, he’s taught photography at Collin College for more than 20 years.
But despite the collection’s photographic riches, it was the letters and diaries in it that opened up family secrets Williams didn’t even know were there.
“It was like walking into their lives,” he says. “I mean, families hid stuff and they still do. But tuberculosis, two or three of them died of tuberculosis. They hid that. It was a big, shameful thing.”
And that’s just the start. A half-brother didn’t commit suicide as Williams thought; he was shot by the police in Connecticut. One relative was sent to an asylum in Oklahoma. Others had owned slaves. And poring through it all, Williams saw other persistent forces.
He doesn’t think his predecessors were themselves racists. But it’s plain that “Texas possessed a latent racism that ran through the pictures and a propensity to violence as a solution. Of course, it was the Wild West, a lot of ex-Confederates settled around here and there was no law.
“So we were armed to the teeth. I mean, I inherited forty handguns.”
Last month, UNT published Williams’ new book ‘Proof: Photographs from Four Generations of a Texas Family.’ It contains his selection of 193 photos, Tucker’s afterword and Williams’ reflections on the collection and the art of photography itself: “Photographs are amazing memory triggers. I can go back and hear dad’s voice. It’s like it’s right there.”
On the other hand, photographs capture only the past. “They’re like headstones,” he says. “They’re what people leave behind.”
And photos, like memories, can fade.
Back in Special Collections, I ask Williams if what we’re looking at are the original prints or are they copies he made from prints or negatives.
“All of these,” he says, indicating the prints in the box, ” I started printing them with a vengeance in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s because dad just gave me the collection.”
Williams started cranking out new prints because he wanted to preserve the images. Photographs, he argues, shouldn’t disappear; it should be an art like sculpture or paintings, lasting centuries. We owe it to the future, he says, not to lose everything, not to lose this documentation of who we were, what we did. So Williams has been transferring his father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s pictures to gold- or silver-tone, black-and-white prints because they can last for centuries. They’re even more reliable than digital images — which are subject to bit rot and memory failure. In fact, he says, if a gold-tone print has another metal, like platinum, added during the process, the result is like “chrome-plating a bumper.”
But while doing all this — organizing the collection, making new prints — Williams repeatedly had the same eerie experience.
“Everybody I knew was dead,” he says. “And I’d open a folder and there they’d be from birth to death – in one folder, it was their whole life in these after-images of silver and paper.”
What photography teaches us is – that moment has passed. Williams has two grown-up sons, and neither is continuing the family’s photographic legacy. It ends with him.
At the same time, some things never seem to change. These days, Williams has a studio in the Kirby Building in downtown Dallas.
And yes, he’s still photographing buildings and street scenes — still adding to the family collection.
When did decide you were a photographer – not when did you start taking pictures but when did you really decide this art was your profession?
The way the family was, we were so immersed in it, I never thought I was going to be anything else. We had a dark room at home and at elementary school I shot pictures and developed them. There was a period of time I wanted to write. I wanted to do that, but I was never given a choice. In fact, when I did go to TCU, my dad said, ‘You already know too much art and photography. You’re not going to write. You’re going to study.’
And I got a business degree because I was going to run the family business. Then I went back to graduate school and got an art degree. But there was never any other doubt that this was what I was going to do. But I always loved photography. There was never any problem with being in it. But also, the writing, off and on. Even now, I wish I had spent more time writing and had shared the two — because my work now is a combination of the two.
Are there any rituals you follow in your work, any particular preparations you have to go through?
Yeah. I have to live with the work, and I think maybe I just kind of developed this way of working. There’s all the stuff all around me.
It drove some people crazy because some artists clean up their whole work area, they put everything up at night. To me, that means the project is dead. I never think about it again. So everything stays out on the tables and all around me. It’s living; it’s alive with me. All the negatives, I think about them, and I start in the bathroom because you spend a certain amount of time there, so I hang all the pictures around the toilet. So you’re in there, and the images begin to talk to you. It begins to say, ‘I’m not good,’ or ‘I’m good,’ and pretty soon, it’s easy to edit which ones are good or bad. Living with them solidifies them and looking at them every day, the ones that can hold up under that scrutiny usually are the better ones, I think.
In a way, you never had to give up your day job to pursue your art because your day job always was photography. But did you give up anything to pursue it as an art?
Relationships, in general. Both children and marital relationships but not on purpose. It’s just that it’s so time consuming. We worked around the clock at Byrd Photo, and then later I became obsessed with the art. And people just got left behind.
I have some regrets on that.
Were you aware of how unusual your family’s collecting habits were?
Not until I began working with Ann Tucker and Roy Flukinger [who wrote the afterword and foreword for ‘Proof’]. I became aware of it when I had all the family letters, about two-three years ago. I mean, they kept all the photographs. They had all the diaries and cameras and stuff. But I realized we’re were kind of hoarders. There must be some genetic issue here because we did tend to save stuff.
What struck me in particular is your father’s diary. He went off to Michigan to live on a sailboat — and it all fell apart. So out of anger, he tore the diary in half. But then he kept the torn halves. Who does that?
Yeah, there’s even a statement in another diary that said, ‘These things from my childhood I should throw away. I will not.’ So he made a conscious decision not to let that stuff go.
‘Proof’ reminded me strongly of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip,’ the classic historical study about the hidden life of 19th-century backwoods Wisconsin. It was taken from this huge archive of glass plates, with all these images about diphtheria and madness and barn burnings. Now, not all of ‘Proof’ is like that, really, but you do start off declaring ‘photographs are death.’ When did you start thinking that — about your own art?
Well, Susan Sontag proposed that. For me, photographing neighborhood pictures as a kid, I realized, ‘Now I’m seven, and I already have these memories from last summer.’ I realized I’d captured a time and a place. A photo was sort of a time machine. Some of those people were already gone, either they moved out of the neighborhood or they died or something. And I kind of realized the nature of photography — they’re like headstones. They’re what people leave behind. You don’t know if I’m going to walk out today and get run over.
So it’s marking the time and the people’s faces. I like that part of it, and when it really came to me was the summer before last. I came here [the Special Collections at UNT] every day. They gave me an apartment to live in to work here, and so I came in here every day like a job. And going through these photos, everybody that I knew is dead. And I’d open a folder and there they’d be from birth to death in one folder, and it was their whole life. It became kind of a surreal experience to see an uncle or a sister, a complete life in these after-images of silver and paper.
Old pictures, they goad you in that way — as if that’s all they’re for. ‘I should have said this, I should have had this conversation.’ Of course, there’s nostalgia involved and missing the person and all that, but they do bring up relationship negligence and the nature of the relationship, what happened or didn’t.
Are you creatively satisfied — with this project, with your art in general?
That is always the artist’s problem. You know, it’s back and forth. The work gives me a thrill, and I love it. And then it’ll go through a long dry period where it’s mute, and then it becomes almost utilitarian.
I still am a busy photographer; I shoot every day. But why go to all this trouble? I have now left the art world and I’m now dealing with just the library world and what the pictures say to the future. So I think it’s real important that a photo has the life of a sculpture or an oil painting. Photographs, we owe them to do it [preserve them], we owe it to the future — that’s the signature of our time. That’s why I returned to the darkroom when I started working on the collection. The fact the collection survived as well as it did is a validation of old-school methods — gold- and silver-tone prints. Silver is good, but you add another metal like gold or platinum and it’s like chrome-plating a bumper. I looked into it and even digital capture — with bit rot, a power surge wiping out storage — it’s not reliable, although we still don’t know about ink jet prints.
So I just record street corners and things now, documenting things, knowing that I’m adding to the historic record. But they don’t have the thrill of a piece of artwork. You want that, though, and lately I’m writing more; and that’s my new thing. Again, I get a lot of enjoyment out of when I’ve written something I think is good or feels good, particularly when it’s the context for photographs. I like this new image and text combination.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.