The last century marked a period when non–art objects could suddenly became art. Think Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (the snow shovel or urinal transformed, by the whim of the artist, into sculpture), or museum collections of African and Oceanic objects that didn’t enter this world as “art.” Or the work of so-called outsiders. A few adjustments of definition, and entire bodies of objects made by people who didn’t consider themselves artists could be anointed ex post facto.
On first approach, Bill Wood (1912–1973) appears to be getting this treatment. Wood was a photographer, but not an artist. He was a man with a vision, but his vision was more entrepreneurial than artistic. From 1937 to 1970, he operated the Bill Wood Photo Co. in Fort Worth, Texas. He advertised on the radio and sold cameras, flash bulbs, and photo accessories. Before the rise of instant (Polaroid) photography in the 1960s, he employed as many as 25 people to develop black-and-white snapshot film brought in by customers.
In his photography, Wood wasn’t a specialist—no yearbook or wedding-photos man. He liked to get out and around town, photographing new businesses, showrooms, product displays, and construction sites. He shot service clubs, sororities, families, and pets. He even chased down fires and accidents and sold the pictures to local newspapers or the legal profession. A caricature he commissioned to advertise his business shows him wearing a top hat and a checkered blazer and standing—at least in one road sign—next to the words “Better Commercial Pictures Took!”
How, then, did Wood end up at the International Center of Photography?
In the 1980s, Diane Keaton, a long-time photo enthusiast, bought 20,000 negatives from a company that specializes in preserving commercial and institutional archives. But after adopting two children and moving to California, she found her attention diverted, and more than two decades passed before she pulled the negatives out of a closet. With the help of writer and curator Marvin Heiferman, she brought them to ICP.
Neither Keaton nor Heiferman is bent on claiming Wood for the canon of 20th-century art photography; in fact, they seem at times more like critics than apologists. Keaton describes her trudge through the Wood archive as “not a moving experience.” Heiferman writes that Wood “is not being resurrected in this exhibition and book as another overlooked or local genius on the order of Mike Disfarmer or Weegee.”
Yet Wood’s photographs are striking, and a large part of what makes them so is that they contain both vestiges and prescient glimmers of art photography from the last century. Here are Atget shop windows (only with cowboy boots rather than bowler hats); shelves crammed with consumer products à la Andreas Gursky; industrial fixtures like the ones Bernd and Hilla Becher photographed; prefab houses recalling Dan Graham’s “Homes for America”; stark commercial photos in the vein of Christopher Williams; and a few Weegee-esque accident and crime-scene images.
The straight-photography crowd is what you’ll think of first, however. Photos of a woman in cat’s-eye glasses, a girl strapped into a retainer, or a couple of nuns are pure Diane Arbus (or perhaps Garry Winogrand), while images of store windows, business interiors and exteriors, and parking lots recall Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, or Lewis Baltz. A baby in a coffin? Larry Clark. African-Americans in cleaning uniforms being instructed by a white manager? Robert Frank.
If the riddle is how a commercial photographer like Wood could even momentarily be compared with Friedlander or Frank, the answer, in part, is simply historical: Wood was working in black and white (in a large rather than small format) at the same time as these other practitioners. Exhibition design also explains it: His photos have been taken out of context—the names and locations mostly lost to us—and arranged in a grid unlike anything he would have created.
Keaton wonders if there was “a secret defiance behind his affable approach.” But it seems more likely that any critique comes from us, the viewers, and what we bring to the picture. We already know, thanks to Frank and others, about disillusionment and inequity in mid-century America—about the repressive, homogenizing forces of Eisenhower, McCarthy, and Jim Crow.
But Wood’s slice of America is, for all appearances, free of irony and critique. When he photographed a new housing development, a Nixon campaign billboard, or “Penny Rudd, Miss Texas 1963″—or, better yet, absurd product displays (“Free one years supply of Kleenex when you purchase your Pontiac from Bill McDavid Pontiac Co.”)—he wasn’t acting out of some existential revulsion or revolt.
Unlike the vast population of art photographs, what Wood’s work offers is the insider’s view. Where Frank wrote of having a “genuine distrust and méfiance toward all group activities,” Wood was a member of several fraternal-service organizations—in other words, a joiner. He actually belonged to these clubs; these were his friends and neighbors, his relatives and fellow strivers in business. The longstanding criticism against straight photography—that it’s exploitative—can’t be leveled here: Hell, his subjects paid him to be photographed. They’d never have suspected they’d all end up at ICP, where we can laugh at the hairdos and outmoded consumer products (and cringe at the clueless sexism and racism coded—mostly in the form of absence—into the pictures).
But there’s something that makes me hesitate at viewing these photos through the filter of our current standards, either for fashion or political correctness. This is not out of charity because Wood (essentially a good ol’ boy who was born and died in Fort Worth) never “rose” to the level of Frank’s or Winograd’s distanced critique. Nor is it out of nostalgia, a longing for a time when the U.S. was at peace, and businesses (like Wood’s) were owned and operated by individuals rather than conglomerates, and development, to people living in the vast American West, meant prosperity rather than destruction. Instead, it’s partly because Wood’s images of Americans smiling in their uniforms, offering a quick product demonstration, receiving congratulations, or finally getting sick and lying in their coffins, were taken by a fellow striver.
Moreover, it’s this: Wood’s subjects, posed carefully in front of the camera—unlike straight photography’s ostensibly unposed aesthetic—gaze tentatively, sometimes almost sheepishly, into the lens, as if to ask: “Am I doing it right?” Spend some time with these pictures and you’ll begin to wonder: Is it fair to look back with the arrogance of historical hindsight and say no?