Walking the halls of Building H at the Spring Creek Campus of Collin College, you’re likely to hear the laughter, humor, advice and down-home wisdom of a beloved professor: Byrd M. Williams IV. He’s an unassuming fellow and most students don’t realize, as they are sitting in his class, that they are being taught the art and craft of photography by a twice-named professor of the year and one of the finest commercial photographers and artists in the country. His work has been shown and collected at the Amon Carter Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. He is now a published author as well.
Known simply as Byrd by his students, he is the fourth in a family of photographers who, over the past 120 years, has captured the history of North Texas. The family’s archive was recently purchased by the University of North Texas where it will be part of UNT’s Rare Book and Photographic Collection. This month, his book “Proof: Photographs from Four Generations of a Texas Family” was published by the UNT press.
The archive, comprised by letters, diaries, negatives, photographs and cameras, is the primary source material of historians and of the curious seeking not only a unique understanding of North Texas during this period, but a deeper understanding of the human condition and the history of photography. The collection, known as The Byrd Williams Collection, houses 10,000 prints and 300,000 negatives, all captured by four generations of Byrds from 1880 to present day.
Working on the archive was like “working in a grave yard,” Byrd said. It gave him a window into the intimate life of generations before him and brought him face to face with his own mortality. In fact, he learned of mortality while working alongside his father when, at just 12 years old, he saw his first image of a crime scene. That experience influences his photography today. Byrd enjoys capturing the “riskier, shadier side of life, those parts of the culture that are hidden.”
“Proof” looks at the work of four generations of the Williams family. His great-grandfather, Byrd I, ran a general store in Gainesville in the late 1800s. Sensing a unique business opportunity, he was an early customer of the newly formed Kodak Company using Kodak’s official postcard camera and equipment to sell post cards to tourists visiting Texas.
His grandfather, Byrd II, was a civil engineer whose first job out of college was to survey the West. Stationed in El Paso, he was a colorful character who enjoyed spending time across the border in Juarez where he became a drinking buddy with Pancho Villa. He loved the West and photographed Yosemite 30 years before Ansel Adams ever saw it.
Finally, his father, Byrd III, was hooked on photography after receiving a mail order camera as a little boy. A TCU graduate with a degree in journalism, his longing was to be both a writer and a photographer. In the late 1940s, he opened the Byrd Williams Studio in Fort Worth. A natural storyteller, he captured the unique stories of his clients photographing weddings, events, architecture and portraits. A master developer, he also had a niche business of developing crime scene photos for the Fort Worth Police Department.
Byrd IV worked for his father in the Fort Worth studio and in 1988, helped start Collin College’s photography program. Teaching the technology of photography is easy, but teaching the “visual literacy, that is, what sets your image apart from cousin Steve’s, that’s an art,” he said. Byrd strives to teach his students what generations before taught him: “a good image is one that communicates the lucky accident, coming upon a scene that speaks for itself. Good photographers shoot from the heart and edit from the intellect.” Byrds I, II and III would agree.
Portrait of Byrd IV by Charlise Hill-Larson
Meet Byrd Williams IV at these local book talks:
11.22.16 | 4-7pm
The Willis Library at UNT
exhibit, talk and book signing
12.17.16 | 2-4pm
The Fort Worth Public Library
exhibit, talk and book signing