Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Bill Wood's Business
Bill Wood's Business by Marvin Heiferman & Diane Keaton is culled from an archive of 4x5 black-&-white negatves of commercial work done by Bill Wood, a photographer & camera store owner in downtown Dallas, working from 1937-1973. There are a total of 20,000 negatives in the archive which was originally saved by the archivist Rick Prelinger, which was later owned by Diane Keaton, & is now a gift to the International Center of Photography. Heiferman & Keaton have collaborated on books of industrial images in the past such as Mr. Salesman; & Keaton is also a photographer. Her book, Reservations, is one of my treasured possessions - & when I go to Miami Beach I look in vain for what is now a lost world of Morris Lapidus & such designs, such as those seen in her images.
Bill Wood's photographs, all done commercially, are a fascinating insight into the social fabric of post WWII USA. An entrepreneur, a public figure, Bill Wood himself emerges as a resolutely cheerful, social figure - a Mason, a lodge member, his name emblazoned on his car & in neon over his store. If anything this shows us an aspect of photography as a kind of thread to the social fabric - from showroom displays to prizewinners to re-enactments of accidents to new buildings & streets - the photograph as a kind of proof & reinforcement of social values emerges, even when we can no longer identify directly what the uses of the images. Both familiar & strange, there is some uncanniness to the images, which are nevertheless deliriously cheerful & matter-of-fact. Lists of the subjects do not do the images justice. I am struck by their constant "can-do" spirit, their euphoric faith in the "new" world of the modern city & suburb, product & display.
As a collection, the book reminds me of Evidence, the book by Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan. Evidence utilizes the obsolescence of the images - that they have lost function & sense - to create a new narrative of images which become enigmatic in their lack of context, again utilizing their familiarity to lead us to a state of un-knowing. The Bill Wood photos do this with their eclectic subject matter(s), rendered as if all of one piece with the uniform clarity of film & flash, yet never revealing their "secret," if there actually is one. I am reminded of the worlds of my parents & their peers, their "new" world of subdivisions & products, from ready-to-wear clothes to frozen vegetables. Perhaps I am romanticizing this epoch, but I do believe they believed they had inherited a new world which was bountiful & extraordinary in the everyday - optimistic values not so apparent in our current world. If there is a "zeitgeist" to the ordinary, I believe it can be seen in this amazing archive of our once brave new world - we see what we have lost, or what is no longer available to us.