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 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
"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