Bill Wood's Business

Photography by Bill Wood
Text by Diane Keaton & Marvin Heiferman
Steidl/ICP 2008

Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter

Issue 4

Bill Wood’s Business is a catalogue published by ICP/Steidl in conjunction with a small exhibit of the photographs at International Center of Photography running May through September 7, 2008.

The impact of the veterans returning from World War II was being felt in many cities, or more appropriately, in the suburbs of cities around the nation. In 1941, William Levitt won a government contact to build 2,350 war workers' homes. He took the challenge to task and ultimately designed and developed the most efficient method for mass-produced home building ever conceived. With this technology, he eventually founded Levittown, NY where in just over four years he had build over 17,000 homes for 82,000 people. Like in Levittown, the population of Tarrant County, Texas, the home of Fort Worth was expanding rapidly. The population grew from 197,000 in 1930 to over 361,000 in 1950. By 1956 the city of Fort Worth enthusiastically accepted the proposal of architect and urban planner Victor Gruen to renovate the downtown area to accommodate more automobile traffic while builders were rapidly building new homes to keep up with this growing population. Fort Worth was booming, and so was Bill Wood’s business.

Bill Wood was photographer and a businessman. He owned a thriving photographic studio from 1937 to 1970 in Forth Worth, the only place he lived with the exception of his military career in World War II. The rapidly expanding population and growing economy (primarily from the influx of various aviation corporations) and  the opening of Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike in 1957 allowed for even greater success than Woods had experienced before the war. Fort Worth was a microcosm of the burgeoning growth in mid-century suburban America and Bill Wood, along with his often uncredited assistant Reginald Phillip, captured it all.

The photographs in Bill Wood’s Business start with a few from the 1940s, (most have been lost) and move through the 1950s and 1960s. The creation and curating of this book has transformed businessman Wood into a documentarian by highlighting how he subtly addressed many of the major issues plaguing his generation—racism, sexism, labor inequalities, the worker as consumer and the beginning stages for of suburban sprawl. Conversely, his images also reinforcing how later generations would nostalgically view the baby boom.

In defense of the unintentional political issues this book raises, Wood’s photographs were not meant as social commentary. He simply performed a function for society as a commercial photographer and unknowingly left something behind for posterity. Excluding the post mortems, the photos are light and innocent and reflect quotidian American life at that time. His photos were not about his personal expression, but that of his subjects, and how they wanted to be perceived in the post-war economy.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, historian turned philosopher Michel de Certeau writes that human beings are constantly attempting to transform the everyday world of ordinary life into something else: “a memory of an incentive, a secret hiding place or a public stage, a momentary zone of pleasure of a site of resistance”. The subjects who posed for Bill Wood, casual and commercial, where objects often represent humans in inanimate form, wanted to document what was present and often ‘good.’ “The photograph is a certificate of presence,” Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida. Wood’s photos are a record of their presence: the bride did feed the husband cake; the banks did get built; the African American man did clean the sink; Ms. Texas did pose on the stairwell with white gloves; the baby did die.

The town of Fort Worth grew even more in during the 1950s and by 1960 the population was over 538,000. The coming of the American century was here, ushered in with the American work force driving the commercial market. Home ownership increased more in the decade following World War II than in the previous 150 years. No surprise that this is the decade when the field of cultural landscape studies emerged.  J.B. Jackson wrote that the cultural landscape is “a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence…which underscores…our identity and presence.” The physical spaces that Wood photographed represented the growing economy in the common spaces of the culture: furniture showrooms, beauty parlors, car dealerships; Woolworth’s, Wards, and Ethan Allen. These documents clearly defined the new identity of the “American.”

The last images in the book are dated 1967, the year Twiggy was becoming a fashion icon, 475,000 US troops were serving in Vietnam, and race riots were shaking Detroit. Unlike these radical cultural events, Woods photos from this year show common people doing common things not unlike many of this photos from the previous decades—  the receptionist at the desk,  a man and a Donaldson filter cleaner, and some members of the Poly Masonic Lodge posing in uniform—and the spaces in which they interact—like the slaughterhouse, main street with sidewalk. These are the last images in the book as Wood stopped photographing in 1970 for health reasons and died in 1973 of lung cancer. The business failed with the new owners.

The archive and book Bill Wood’s Business are Wood’s legacy. The great discoveries of the work of E.J. Bellocq, Mike Disfarmer, the studio portraits of the townspeople of LaPorte, Indiana and now Bill Wood’s Photo Co. of  Fort Worth have added considerably to the cultural record of found photography. In these beautiful photographs of the banal and everyday, Wood unintentionally created a historical record of a slice of American life for over three decades. Once again quoting Barthes, “The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.”