Cougar News recently spoke with Byrd Williams, professor of photography, about his new book, “Proof: Photographs from Four Generations of a Texas Family,” currently available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and his philosophy about photography.
Why did you write this book?
The overarching foundation of this book was predicated on the photographic history of Texas, the history of photography and my four-generation photographic family. We have accumulated artifacts and letters going back to the Civil War as well as 300,000 photographs and cameras reaching back into the 19th century. I have been working on this my whole life. I started shooting for it in 1958, and my father turned the archive over to me in 1970 when I began the production of more than 15,000 images in gold chloride. The underlying premise of “Proof” is the philosophical nature of photography itself. The minute you press the shutter button the scene before stays in the present, but the moment locked in the camera becomes the past. It is racing at light speed to other times and other lives. You are holding in your hand a small piece of the fabric of reality from your time here, and posterity long into the future will be holding it and scrutinizing your world. What you hated, what you loved, what scared you, what moved you and what 21st century cultural citizens were doing. The camera is a little box of archeological artifacts. It’s a privilege to do this.
Are other people’s images featured in this book?
I am a fourth generation photographer. My great grandfather, grandfather and father were all photographers and all had the name Byrd Moore Williams. All of us photographed professional assignments from portraits to landscapes, and we all photographed personal work from the heart, for lack of a better word we made art.
Is this the first book you have written?
This is my third book:
“Fort Worth’s Legendary Landmarks.” TCU Press, 1995
“Ortsbeschreibungen.” Kunstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral, 1998
“Proof.” UNT Press
What is unique about this book?
“’PROOF’s heart and soul, is Byrd’s interweave of image and texts, with his words weaving me through both image and life. I loved being carried along by the colorful sadness. It left me in a different place. Thank you. I pass the book on to our library with great pleasure.”
-John Rohrbach Curator, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
“Proof” combines Texas History with the history of photography laid over a rich family story of four artists living in the south. I am one of the only fourth-generation photographers in the country. My photographic experience goes back to childhood. In fact, much of what I shot before I was 10 years old is in museums around the world. I have spent almost 30 years executing the mandate given to me by Collin College’s first president, Dr. John Anthony “build a photography program that is one of the best anywhere.
What is your favorite chapter and why?
The Family Album is my favorite chapter. It is less about photographs and more about the nature of photography and its relationship to death and loss. I was able to strike a poignant chord that tints the rest of the book. The most salient essay, Memento Mori (remember you must die) sets the tone.
How long did it take you to write this book?
45 years to print the photographs / four years to write the text
How did your time at Collin College influence your work on this book?
I have had only two jobs in my life, the family business, Byrd Photo Service, and Collin College’s Photography Department. The midlife move from the business sector to the academic world provided me with the environment to alter my thinking from capitalism to intellectualism and bring young minds into the process. When you are assigned the task of developing an ergonomic curriculum that provides a cumulative education in a particular discipline, it clears your thinking about the direction of one’s own work and how it fits into the larger image world.
A large department with an accompanying laboratory, such as the one we have at Collin, creates a vibrant art community that is conducive to fresh ideas and creativity. Consequently, production is increased and fueled by shared enthusiasm of faculty, staff and students. I always try to infect the students with a commitment to creativity.
I understand preserving family memories is important to you. How do you convey that message to your students?
The world changed after 1839, following Louis Daguerre’s invention. Prior to photography, posterity knew only the lives of the richest few landowners, clergy and kings. The rest of humanity tended to be poor and illiterate. Consequently there is little in the way of descriptive evidence to aid in understanding how your forebears lived and what their world looked like. Photographs are the window to posterity. Photography ascended with the middle class, inspired by the humanism of the renaissance and fueled by the industrial age. It would be absurd not to take advantage of this direct communication with the unborn that a college-level course in photography provides. Each student in all of my classes is challenged with at least one assignment that involves a personal history in images. It begins with a talk that I call the “Priesthood Lecture” in which I outline the privilege and duty that is incumbent on them to take responsibility for their historical family record. It’s the closest thing to time travel that we will ever experience. Everybody else just has a headstone with dates and some corny epitaph on it. My students will sit with their great-great grandchildren and point to the walls that make up reality in their times.
What advice would you give others who would like to follow your lead and write a book?
Slow down and consider your life. Spend time thinking about the people around you. Love them or hate them. Either is OK. You just have to have a story to tell. Everybody does, but they pass through their time here glibly, not noticing the stories that are worth telling.
What advice would you give a budding photographer?
Love it. Own it. You must be obsessed with photography as well as other forms of expression. Music, movies, literature, opera, theater etc. Sports do not count. There is no expression there. You must consume communication in the form of emotional facsimile.
To read a New York Times article about Williams, visit https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/in-this-family-photography-is-for-the-byrds/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Multimedia&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs®ion=Body&_r=0
To read a Dallas Morning News article, visit http://www.dallasnews.com/arts/visual-arts/2016/11/23/pancho-villa-modern-dallas-four-generations-byrd-williamses-chronicled-life-camera-lens
To view a KERA interview with Williams, visit http://artandseek.org/spotlight/byrd-williams-iv/
To read about Williams in D Magazine, visit http://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2017/february/when-photography-becomes-a-family-affair/
To read a Texas Monthly article about Williams, visit http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/glimpse-texas-history-23-photos/
To read an Allen Image article about Williams, visit www.allenimage.com, and click on the October 2016 issue.
To read an article in Plano Magazine about Williams, visit http://planomagazine.com/through-the-lens-with-byrd-m-williams-iv/ .