The Family Album
WALKING INTO THIS ARCHIVE is to walk among the dead. Many I knew and many I am just getting to know through their words and faces, but now I am one of the last remaining survivors in this Borgesian library of images. It was fiendishly comical when I noticed the irony of what has taken place: Middle class transubstantiation. Instead of bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, four generations of my forebears' bodies and blood have turned into paper and silver.
For me, photography is about death. It didn't used to be, but I'm sixty-four and everybody in the room is dead and I can't remember why I was so obsessed with saving their lives in two-dimensional facsimile. Perhaps all these years I have been trying to nail down what Ian McEwen refers to as our brief spark of consciousness.
It was never about the money; I could have done better mowing lawns. There was always this urgency about it: save all historic buildings, remember all the faces, stand on all the street corners, save everybody's toilet, share my experience with posterity, I was alive goddammit.
I am working in a graveyard now. I have entire lives in a single folder.
Suicides. Insanity. Murder. Tragedy. It's all in there. My guess is all families have a dose of this, but we just happen to be photographers/writers/packrats.
Pam got cancer.
Dad got a stroke.
Granddad got cirrhosis.
Bessie got insane.
Mother got Alzheimer's.
Timmy got bullets.
Ray got suicide.
Everybody got old and died and now I hang out with them.
Here's a theory: The neuroscientist Sam Harris weighs in on the nature of consciousness, "In reality there is no past or future, they are merely thoughts arising in the present ... there is only now." Maybe photographs are as close to a physical existence of the past that we will ever get. In the long run, it may turn out to be a rather pathetic attempt to put memories into sticks and stones. We want to solidify the present in a way that makes the numinous appear real.
What can one say about the billions of unidentified, unimagined, and, more specifically, unknowable humans who we know had lives? As Philip Larkin noted,
"the sure extinction that we travel to And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, Not to be anywhere ... nothing more true"
What of their existence remains? Petrified bones? A headstone? Their trinkets and marks? Painted images of the rich? Maybe a photograph, that democratic map of one's face that everybody began to get Daguerreian access to in the nineteenth century, which now dwells in our telephones. This collection is full of such relics. Mother and child encased in gold leaf, wood, and velvet and most likely holding a particle of my genome, but as to their identity? Forever lost.
Ovarian free fall. The reality of an individual's life is slippery, don't you think? The psychologists say that the best memories are only 80 percent accurate. Which part is the 20 percent bullshit?
I always felt I was on the outside watching and, try as I might, I could not ascertain any measurable meaning to all of this. Religious wish thinking didn't seem too satisfactory. I mean, those Bronze Age stories, come on now.
Maybe this is what drives photographers. While solidifying that 80 percent, we, in turn, get to define the 20 percent. Not just for us, but for everyone.
Pam's entire life is in a folder now. From that moment in 1957 when she stepped up on a bicycle basket to salute me in her new dress until that moment in 2014 when she lay on the couch and quit breathing.
Ray's Evidence Box and Pam's Last Note
After my twin sister's most recent chemo bout the Doctor called her husband Ray aside and discussed the case with him. We'll never know what was said but I have an idea because I had a similar talk with another one of Pam's many doctors about a year later. The couple went home and the next day, Pam casually took a sip of Ray's morning glass of milk. She spewed it out because it was mostly vodka. A minor spat ensued complete with admonitions about the dangers of breakfast drinking to an ex-alcoholic. Pam was not vindictive and she loved and trusted Ray and had worked through his problems before. I know her and she would not have harangued him. She simply got her laptop and retired to the bedroom and started looking at new shoes, Italian is my guess.
Presently Ray came in and lay beside her and announced that he was going to die some day too. Pam had said that he talked in a morose way from time to time so she thought nothing of it. He then got up and went into the next room and sat in his easy chair and shot himself, with a Glock that he had nicked from my dad's gun collection, through his right temple, leaving his wife of 20 years behind to grapple with her death sentence.
We found this love note to Ray near her the night she died. Maybe this was Pam's most salient characteristic:
1. to cease to feel resentment against (an offender) PARDON
2. to release feelings of vengeance toward a person who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve reprieval.
The Mysterious Life of Sister Bessie
Skeleton in Closet
a. A family scandal that is concealed to avoid public disgrace.
b. Any embarrassing, shameful, or damaging secret.
Example: Murderer, perjury, grand larceny, hereditary disease, adultery, insanity, etc.
I stumbled across this skeleton while digging around in the archive's "closet."
I have not gotten to the bottom of sister Bessie's story, but tantalizing details drive me on. She was the older sister of a pioneering family with seven brothers and a covered wagon that slogged across the Middle American states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Nothing surprising there. It is the cold dead silence and complete refusal of all ancestors to talk about her through the years that makes me want to know.
So, I find this death certificate from Oklahoma in her small box of effects along with a family photograph where her mother's face is not merely scratched off but gouged out. The institution where she died was the Oklahoma Hospital for the insane. I called all living cousins and got a half a dozen versions, mostly speculation. Her mother (with the missing face) died or lost her marbles, so Bessie had to raise all the boys and do all of the house work and farm chores, thus driving her to the nuthouse where she committed suicide at twenty-six years of age. (I made that up, you may speculate along with my cousins too.) That is my grandfather next to the face-gouge lady.
My First and Last Portraits of Dad
In 1960 Dad handed me his Rolleiflex and so I made a photograph of him smoking. Then five minutes later he got throat cancer, then a stroke, and finally a heart attack made him a part of the past. Although it took twenty-five years to transpire, we did not get to talk enough about the things that we needed to. Photographs of familiar faces in your tribal orbit are rather rude in this way. They constantly bring up relationship negligence as if that is all they are for. Yes, poignancy is present, as is memory, yet both seem to be subservient to the guilt of what could have transpired.
In between these photographs lie the prison years: Byrd Photo Service. We were photographers and then we woke up in the "photofinishing" business. For me it was a nightmare. Ruthless deadlines and cruel hours turned my teen and young adult world into a workaholic-forced march. Instead of shooting photographs in the fresh air, we found ourselves in claustrophobic dark rooms for the next few decades. Monday through Saturday, by one's self, in a 4' × 6' closet that smelled like sulfur and formaldehyde, does not bode well for a cloudless mental sky. Self-introspection while treading in an odious chemical bouquet has to be partly to blame for Dad's poor health.
Colonel Jacob Barnett Biffle
"It is with grief that I write to you of Pa's death. He left home in his usual health and was brought back a corpse." So starts the 1877 letter of my great-great aunt Mary Ann Biffle. My family talked of this murder the entire time I was growing up, but each great aunt or uncle had a different version. Stolen gold, Sherman's revenge, ambush, and, the most unlikely one, arguing with a camp mess cook over bad food. It turns out that the latter was the closest.
A letter was found in Tennessee penned by his twelve-year-old daughter within a few days of his death. It is an account of the mishap given to her by her brother, Jonathan, who was dispatched to rescue his father on the trail home. He talked at length with him just prior to his death, so we must accept its veracity. It went down like this:
Biffle hired some ex-Confederate ruffians to help him run his cattle up to the Washita-Red River fork where they made camp. The men shot a deer and were told by Biffle that since he was the boss, he would be taking the tasty hindquarters home to his family. They could partition the rest. A man named Waters began making profanity-laced threats. Jake stated calmly that he WAS NOT armed, but that he would administer an ass whipping as soon as he got his coat off. Halfway through disrobing, Waters began to shoot off his pistol, one round striking Jake in the shoulder and lodging in his chest. The other cowboys stopped him (why didn't they shoot him?) and allowed him to gallop away into the night, never to be seen again. Jake Biffle was loaded on a wagon and jittered to his death on a bumpy trail two weeks later. A distance of 130 miles that Goggle Maps says you can walk in 44 hours. The $500 bounty was never collected.
Happy second grader to dead coyote.
Timmy's childhood hobby of joy-riding in stolen cars turned into a side profession offsetting the sporadic economic health of the music business. A musician by trade, he was on the road most of the time and when good-paying gig s were scarce, as is always the case in the music biz, he could fall back on stealing cars. My guess is that it was a more lucrative skill set than strumming a fiddle. According to Arvil Strictland, his old bandleader, Timmy nurtured a friendship with a union employee of General Motors in Arlington, Texas, who had access to a set of master ignition keys. Since there were airports in every major city, Tim and Jake could easily stock a thriving auto sales business. Here is Arvil's account of Timmy's departure from this world:
"We were touring with a band we called the Blues Quintet, booking out of Memphis. We had gone to Wichita, Kansas, to play some dates and were staying at the promoter's house, a guy named Duane Zambo. Jake had found that Zambo kept a Browning 9mm pistol under his pillow and Jake was primed to steal that gun. I talked with Coyote about it and he said, "What do you want me to do? I can't stop him." Not wishing to be involved in the mess I knew would ensue, I quit the band on Christmas day and went to work in the Houston Cellar on December 31, 1966.
I hung out in this neighborhood for forty years. We used to go to Massey's Chicken Fried Steaks, Bob Bolen's Toy Palace, Wedgewood Bowling Lanes, The D. Q., and Saturday Night Fights. It's all gone. It is sinking into the ground like a Roman ruin. They will be digging it up in a couple of centuries.
A Short Note on the Materials and Craft Philosophy
It is a wonder that such a diverse archive has survived more or less intact for 120-plus years; indeed, some artifacts predate the Civil War. Various levels of production craft, from shoddy to meticulous, run through the collection, with general quality stabilizing by the early twentieth century. Materials include:
Silver Nitrate negatives
Silver Acetate negatives
Polyester transparencies and dye coupler film
Gelatin silver halide prints, untoned and toned in both sulfur (sepia) and metallic (gold, selenium, platinum, copper) based toners
Gum Bichromate prints
Color C type prints
Cibachrome dye destruction prints
Various 8 and 16 mm movie stocks
Storage conditions varied, but for most of the century materials were kept in non-air-conditioned rooms, such as small warehouses and garages. Until 1967 the bulk of the collection was only moved twice, which was, according to Anne Wilkes Tucker, a contributing factor to its existence.
This archive stands as a monument to the longevity of silver halide prints. In 2013, while clearing my mother's junk-filled garage, I ran across 600 to 800 toned and untoned prints from before 1900. These silver gelatin prints had presumably spent their 120-plus years in a Texas garage at temperatures ranging from -8 °F to 130 °F. They were in perfect shape. Here is one example of a garage-stored print Grandfather made in 1900 with a properly stored example I made in 1970 behind it.
In 2000, like everybody else, I had switched to digital capture and printing. While the jury is still out on ink jet prints (fifty to seventy-five years max, longer if refrigerated), the threat of "bit rot" has shrouded the longevity of digital capture as a documentary tool of our culture.
Data rot/Bit rot
Is the slow deterioration in the performance and integrity of data stored on storage media when the small electric charge of a bit disperses, possibly altering program code or stored data.
Life expectancy of digital data: twenty to one hundred years
Current known recorded life of a B&W photograph in 2015: 189 years (Nicephore Niepce 1826)
Estimated life expectancy of a B&W print made with gold, silver, palladium, or platinum: 200 to 800 years
By Roy Flukinger's count, I personally made 12,000-plus prints (not counting the digital ink jet prints) from the collection's negatives between 1962 until 2013. Add to this the previous thousands that my ancestors made, and you have a formidable sample of the period's culture going forward to posterity. I always felt it to be a privilege for my family to be given the opportunity to contribute to the story of what it was to be alive in our times. For this reason, whenever I make prints for the collection, I return to the darkroom to render as permanent an image as possible. Regardless of the amount of additional time and effort a darkroom print of precious metal takes to produce over a computer-generated ink print, the nature of an historic record requires this commitment to longevity. They may be the only images we send to the unborn.
"... a hard copy print is the best way to ensure that important images and prints are accessible well into the future. Digital files can be shared and copied easily, but if a flaw develops in the file, or to the drive on which it is stored, or perhaps the formats become obsolete, the image is gone forever. Heartbreaking."
— Kodak Alaris Editorial Staff
Conversation with Dad
A short time before he died, my father and I discussed why we (and the other Byrds) spent all of our living years making photographs. It was never just a passing hobby. It was our life. I wrote this in my thirties to save our conversation. It has been published many times and still holds true to our motivation:
Sometimes I drift around the city, not looking for anything, shifting between observation and reverie. I am a time tourist.
Like Americans abroad in search of souvenirs, I travel through the past collecting moments and bits of culture in two-dimensions for posterity to experience. Make no mistake: it is not the present I am collecting, because the moment I press the shutter, the scene before me, now trapped within my camera, instantly becomes the past.
Although I am physically in Fort Worth, I am mentally in a place more remote, more exotic than Samarkand. In fact, it is so inaccessible that it can never be revisited except through the images I'm making. I am a tourist who travels, not across space to other lands, but across time to other lives. Like a typical tourist, I am in this place temporarily. I move about, looking at things the natives consider absolutely mundane. I am aware of the native's tension, anger, and anxiety; yet I go on arrogantly purposeful. Their momentary embarrassment and vanity is meaningless when the real purpose of my picture-making is understood.
My photographs are messages in bottle. Here we are, marooned on the island of mortality, and I'm sending these notes, written in a universal language, across the ocean of time. My images proclaim our existence and inform those unborn people of our connection to them. I was alive and aware when I chose these moments, just as they will be alive and aware when they see them in their silver after-state. I will have passed, yet they will feel our connection and know we are kindred.CHAPTER 2
Byrd Williams II began to photograph the landscape around the turn of the century. When he finished his bachelor's degree in Austin, he took a number of survey and construction projects around the west in search of permanent employment. This could entail any number of duties from drafting to site photography of project progress. During this period he voraciously photographed the American landscape with an eye for visual starkness and geometric efficiency.
Letter From Mary Alice Williams to her son Byrd II
"My dear son, I have no news to write and you have nothing to gain by the reading of my weekly epistles, yet somehow I cannot let a week go by without saying a few words to my boy ..."
"Byrd, this is a beautiful day, so bright and warm with gentle breezes playing through the leaves of the trees, now and then sending showers of the more matured ones to join their erstwhile companions in their frolic over the green, grassy lawns and across the streets — just such a day as you would like to spend out of doors strolling through the woods down by the creek or over the long sloping hills across the prairies."