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Reviewed by:
  • Proof: Photographs from Four Generations of a Texas Family by Byrd M. Williams IV
  • Robin Dru Germany
Proof: Photographs from Four Generations of a Texas Family.
By Byrd M. Williams IV. Foreword by Roy Flukinger. Afterword by Anne Wilkes Tucker. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2016. 224 pp. Illustrations. $39.95 cloth.

In his new book, Byrd M. Williams IV tackles more than history, family, and memory. He attempts to unravel for himself and his predecessors, the drive to make pictures. As he remarks in the opening pages of the book, he is “one of the last remaining survivors.” The book draws from the Byrd M. Williams archive, a collection of over 350,000 objects housed at the University of North Texas.

In the nine sections of the book, Williams displays his own photographs in proximity to those of his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, all named Byrd M. Williams. The photographs are woven together with meandering stories of insanity, murder, and business as usual, punctuated with artifacts and images that might prove their truth. The stories from multiple generations intersect and veer apart as Williams considers his family through their history, both personal and as early residents of a Great Plains city, and he investigates what photography can say about their connectedness to each other and to the place. The images are a mix of snapshots, historic documents, client-driven work, and creative explorations. [End Page 243] Williams himself has worked as a photographic printer and a commercial photographer but also as an art student, artist, and educator. He draws from all these experiences to articulate the binding threads between the generations of work.

In the section titled “Violence and Religion,” images that he, his grandfather, and his father made of their sons engaged in gun make-believe, are bookended by Williams’s grandfather’s photographs of Pancho Villa’s bandits from 1915 on one side, and Byrd IV’s photos of gunshot victims on the other. The reader can draw their own conclusions from the relationship between these images of violence and the religious healing photographs that follow. The text “Street Light” observes that Williams and his father were both “photographing rooms formed by darkness” when they roamed the city making pictures late at night.

While the similarities between these generations of photographers’ subject matter are sometimes uncanny and always fascinating, the project overall seems to be about storytelling, and how we tell stories about our lives and our families to remind us that we are not alone in this moment. In her book Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit reflects on the freedom to be gained by seeing the past, and the future, as a darkness. She suggests that it’s a mistake to try to use the past as a plan or a map, but better to use the darkness of the past to heighten our awareness of the present. In this project, Williams does not lay claim to any profound understanding of the past but rather he posits the simple notion that we are part of a group and they are complex and messy and a little like us.

Robin Dru Germany
School of Art
Texas Tech University


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pp. 243-244
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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