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A Businessman's View of Mid-American Life

Posted By Administration, Friday, May 23, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

It's not a fine-art photograph, but it looks as if it could be: a man stands in front of a new single-story brick and cinder-block building holding open one of its glass and metal doors as though to invite us in. Large paper letters on the inside of the storefront windows spell "Open." Yet what this new business is open for remains a mystery. There are no other signs on the building, and no products are visible through the glass.

Made by Bill Wood Jr. (1913-73), a commercial photographer who operated in Fort Worth from 1937 to the early 1970s, it is a bland yet curiously affecting image. It conveys hope and optimism, but it seems empty, lonely and anxious.
That is the unintentionally disquieting effect produced by many of the 210 black-and-white photographs that make up "Bill Wood's Business," a fascinating, compact exhibition at the International Center of Photography. The show was organized by the independent curator and writer Marvin Heiferman and Diane Keaton, the actress, photographer and photography collector who 20 years ago bought 20,000 negatives left over from Mr. Wood's defunct enterprise. Recently she donated the trove to the center.
The Bill Wood Photo Company developed pictures, sold equipment and supplies, and offered Mr. Wood's services as a photographer. He did it all: babies, pets, weddings, dead people in their coffins, retirement parties and recitals. For local businesses he photographed grocery store displays, new cars, new houses, oven knobs and prayer books.
Ms. Keaton and Mr. Heiferman admit that Mr. Wood was not a great artist. Proficient but unimaginative, he shot each subject straight on with his large-format camera, achieving lucid yet unremittingly banal images. There is no evidence that he had any higher artistic ambitions. The portrait that emerges from Mr. Heiferman's catalog essay, based partly on conversations with Mr. Wood's two daughters, is of a hard-working businessman, joiner of clubs and family man who strove only to satisfy his costumers' needs.
In fact, after Ms. Keaton acquired the negatives and started printing them, she says in the exhibition catalog, she found herself disappointed. Mr. Wood did not turn out to be an unknown genius like Mike Disfarmer, the Depression-era Arkansas commercial photographer who made extraordinarily intense studio portraits. A 1976 book on Mr. Disfarmer was partly what had inspired her to take a chance on this Fort Worth journeyman.
"I didn't know what to make of it," Ms Keaton writes about the Wood archive. "Everything looked ordinary, maybe too ordinary, more like odd or funny, but not really funny, sort of flat."
Mr. Heiferman ventures that the interest of Mr. Wood's photography is not in its aesthetic quality or personal vision but in what it represents: "a comprehensive and detailed cross section of midcentury, middle American, middle-class life." But that doesn't really explain what is so beguiling about the pictures.
Mr. Heiferman gets closer to the truth when he observes how uncomfortable many of Mr. Wood's subjects look. Two trumpet players in identical blazers and bow ties look so nervous you'd think they were posing for a police lineup. The image of a supervisor stiffly lecturing his attentive staff on custodial routines is like a still from a zombie movie. The smiling girl photographed outdoors wearing her dental retainer is poignant just because she is so awkwardly guarded. Intimacy was not Mr. Wood's forte.
What is captivating and often funny is the gap between what he evidently meant to do and what he did. It appears that he meant to create reassuring images for his customers, pictures that affirmed their identities, values and world. Today, however, it looks more as if he captured feelings of absurdity, unease, alienation and grief.
An image of five old people watching television in a nursing home seems so sad you wonder why Mr. Wood made it. So does the weirdly desolate image of a man in a hat standing at the edge of a wide, sun-baked parking lot occupied by just five cars. A deserted children's playground under a blank drive-in movie screen is an enigmatic dream.
Some of Mr. Wood's pictures could be mistaken for the work of more sophisticated artists. The laconic, sometimes deadpan modernism of Robert Adams and Bill Owens comes to mind. There is an impressive, formal austerity and psychological suggestiveness in Mr. Wood's image of the dark corner windows of a gas station with folding chairs and an empty desk inside and cars on the street reflected in the glass.
All of this raises questions about how Mr. Wood is represented by this exhibition. As Mr. Heiferman acknowledges in his essay, it is not clear which pictures he considered his best professional efforts. Many of the images that will interest sophisticated viewers might have been outtakes that he filed away and never used.
Were he still alive, he might like the idea of viewing his work as a form of documentary history. But to value his photographs of grocery store displays or car showrooms as a kind of vernacular Pop Art would probably strike him as incomprehensible.
Selecting just 210 out of 20,000 images and arranging them in two wall-covering grids as the curators have done might also be mystifying to Mr. Wood. The way they are displayed — printed the same paperback book size and in identical black frames — has the effect of absorbing the many disparate images into a single photographic essay on the American social landscape. It creates the illusion of a broadly integrative, authorial vision that Mr. Wood probably did not possess. (It is worth noting, too, that a second photographer, Reginald C. Phillips, worked for Mr. Wood from 1948 on, which means some of the pictures in the exhibition might not be Mr. Wood's.)
It might be argued that the exhibition is a work of contemporary art — a kind of big collage — created by Ms. Keaton and Mr. Heiferman out of raw material left by Mr. Wood.
Ultimately, however, whether you attribute it to the curators, to a latent outsider genius in Mr. Wood, to the magical nature of photography or to all of the above, the exhibition conjures a haunting, dryly soulful visual poetry.

By Ken Johnson
For The New York Times

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