( Clown cop and two prisoners in blackface), 1950s.
Bill Wood worked as commercial photographer in Fort Wood around the years between 1945 and 1970. He was a photographer as many others in that time, I suppose. He never aspired to be an artist; he was a photographer as others are butchers or plumbers.
His grey and straightforward images resemble on the first look the grey straightforward images of contemporary photographer artists. That’s their most obvious attraction and that´s why, on an impulse, I bought the book.
Going through the book over and over again, I feel the disappointment of looking at something quite repetitive.
Opposed to all the artists working with repetitiveness, Bill Wood never had any intention to to evolve his images around a hidden layer of meaning. There is no secret in his images, not at all. And that´s only natural, Bill Wood produced exactly the photographs his middle class fellow businessman expected him to produce, material for advertisement and self-representation
This is the point where a new, unexpected story starts to evolve for me:
The people he photographed, all of them are very proper, they look like the characters inhabiting the American TV series I had watched as a child. Well kempt short hair, all-American faces, always displaying a smile or a broad grin, and these interiors: it seems I have seen them all before. More so, the stage is set to a real life replica of the movie “The Truman Show”: “The film chronicles the life of a man who is initially unaware that he is living in a constructed reality television show, broadcast around the clock to billions of people across the globe.” (Wikipedia)
Behind the properness of a projection another layer shows up, an unintended one: its there, because it was not seen. The only people not smiling on these pictures are the black employees just being lectured by their boss: they don´t smile because they were not meant: they are just the decoration for somebody more important than them.
Otherwise, Blacks are virtually non existent on Bill Woods photographs. There are three more images depicting Blacks: a school class, some factory workers, and finally: two white men, painted black, the image subtitled: “Clown cop and two prisoners in blackface, 1950”, gruesomely funny.
The black employees: the only people whose faces can be read. And then the faces of the dead: not being able to pose anymore, not able to live up an image, they start to evoke something other than bewilderment in me.
Bill Woods use of a strong strobe separates his customers them from their backgrounds, at times they look like cardboard cut outs. Mrs Lion Lightbulb holding bulbs, what else, and then the man who pays her and the photographer. Endless smile in his face, she looks a bit embarrassed and a forgotten wire hints at the making of this photograph.
Catalog photography: everything has the same photographic importance: the products, the living rooms, the dogs, the living and the dead.
No attempts were made to observe and document everyday life. This was, literally, none of Bill Woods business. At on point or another, something completely unintentional is creeping into these images: The bleakness of the evolving suburbs, the pitiable sight of a young couple examining a wall-to-wall carpeting, and a car, advertised with ” Free one years supply of Kleenex when you purchase your Pontiac from BILL MC DAVID”.
Cleanliness seems to be from uttermost importance for Ford Worths citizens: an other inscription says: “LOOK is it worth 2c a month to you to have YOUR HOME FREE OF FILTHY ROACHES”.
Once in a while an unsmiling reality shines up in Bill Woods images. He photographs a growth on the leg of a woman, and he focuses on it, and cuts off her upper part, just a photograph of a growth, everything else not seen, because not intended.
An other time, another leg, this time a leg with bruises, who knows the reason this had to be documented, and Bill Wood manages to produce a photograph, lacking any drabness, with an air of ease and joy. A beautiful female thigh, a bit of a behind, the woman´s beauty up to our imagination, a reminiscence of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic white dress.
This image, and the photograph of a desert like landscape, depicting a sign that says: “no swimming”, are the only ones where I may assume to have got a glimpse on Bill Wood more personal side.
There is no justification to pass a judgment over Bill Woods work. He did what he wanted to do and what he was supposed to do. He had a family to care for.
My reaction to Bill Woods work is not a fair one. Taken out of the context of his time and the society he lived in, looked upon from a vantage point so far away from him, my words might say as much about myself as about him. And to do him some justice I want to quote a passage written by Marvin Heiferman:
“Bill Wood (1912-1973) was a handsome guy, a hard¬working family man with a penchant for bow ties, barbeques, and ping-pang. He was born, lived, and died in Fort Worth, where, from 1937 until 1970–from the last years of the Great Depression through the boom decades that followed World War II – the Bill Wood Photo Co. supplied amateur photographers with cameras, flash bulbs, acces¬sories, and quality photo finishing. In addition, and as importantly, Bill Wood provided commercial photographic services to the large and small businesses, community groups, and citizens of Fort Worth. For more than three decades, it was Bill Wood´s business to help people figure out how to best represent themselves in images.
At its peak, the Bill Wood Photo Co. occupied two floors at 1209 Throckmorton Street, one of fort Worth’s busy downtown thoroughfares. Bill’s wife, Cleo, managed appointments and accounts. Starting in 1948, a second photographer, Reginald C. Phillips, worked for Wood and over the years was responsible for many of the photographs the business was commissioned to produce. And – until the demand for color transparencies and prints, and the popularity of Polaroid instant photography
transformed the amateur market in the 1960s – as many as twenty-five people worked upstairs, developing and printing the rolls of black-and-white snapshot film that were brought in or picked up from drop-off locations around town.
Wood was one of a number of photographers in the city. In 1940, the Fort Worth telephone directory listed nine photo studios; by 1950, the number of working photographers had swelled to thirty-five. Some had specialties, like wedding or architectural photography, but Bill Wood liked his freedom too much to limit his subject matter and sources of profit. Around 1930, Wood started his business, working out of his parents’ home on Hawkins Street. Wood acquired a reputation for being an ambulance chaser, the kind of photogra¬pher who kept a police short-wave radio in his car, rushing to scenes of accidents, fires, and disasters. He sold these photographs as courtroom evidence or to local newspapers. But as he matured, married, and reconsidered his options, Wood broadened his practice to become what Charles Abet in Photography: Careers & Opportunities for You (1931), defined as a “general practitioner”-a photographer who, like some doctors, was “ready, willing and sufficiently confident and competent to take on whatever challenges came his way.”
Wood set up his business to avoid bread-and-butter, soul-stifling jobs like yearbook photography. While he tolerated the studio work that came his way, and shot passport pictures from time to time, what Wood relished most was his mobility and the unpredictable nature of commercial and location work. He was happiest on call and on assignment. Traveling from one side of Fort Worth to the other, making one sort of picture or another for one client or the next.
For individuals and families, Wood photographed babies and pets, weddings and funerals, and special events like retirement parties and recitals. As a member of a number of fraternal. service, and community organiza¬tions, he photographed luncheons, fashion shows, and seasonal events. Wood also took on lucrative accounts: manufacturers and department stores, smaller retailers and service providers, car dealers, real-estate develop¬ers, and supermarket chains. They all relied on Wood to provide them with straightforward images-shots of new products, buildings, roofs and parking lots under construction, property damage or loss, and of window displays, trade shows, and conventions-shots that were required for insurance and record-keeping purposes. Wood was also hired to produce photographs that functioned quite differently, images that were made to be retouched and manipulated, as necessary, for use on signage, and in promotional brochures, sales literature, and direct-mail pieces.
“There are two important skills you must master if you are to be financially successful as a freelance photographer,”
Eugene M. Hanson explained to motivated readers of How to Make Money in Photography (1955). “One skill is encompassed in the ability to take good pictures. The other lies in the ability to sell your pictures.” As a professional whose job was to create images for others, Bill Wood understood the need to construct and promote an effective public image for himself. On his daily walks in downtown Fort Worth, on the way to and from the post office or bank, he chatted up acquaintances and fellow business owners. Every photographic print delivered to clients, whether it was taken by Wood or Reginald Phillips, was rubber-stamped with the legend, “Another Picture Took by Bill Wood.” All the cars he drove over the years were emblazoned with the Bill Wood Photo Co. name. Advertisements for the business, featuring a catchy jingle, were broadcast repeatedly on the radio. The humorous caricature Bill Wood commissioned of himself became his trademark, a logo reproduced on billboards, freestanding signage, and the postcards he sent out as advertising.”