Hundreds of thousands of images amassed by four generations of photographers in one Fort Worth family are now part of the University of North Texas special collections, a cache that documents both area history and the evolution of photography.
Byrd Williams IV, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all lived in Fort Worth and used cameras to earn a living, document history and create art. The Williams family collection dates to the late 1800s.
The university acquired it in recent months for an undisclosed amount after about a year of negotiation and is seeking funding to digitize it.
“I think the ultimate privilege, or goal of any photographer, is to share that archive forward,” said Williams, 62, who grew up in Fort Worth and is a professor of photography and photography history at Collin College, which is based in Plano. He now lives in Gainesville.
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Morgan Gieringer, head of archives and rare books at UNT in Denton, said about 80 percent of the collection documents Fort Worth. The photographs include events, portraits, the Casa Mañana theater and architecture images that record the urban landscape from the 1930s forward.
One photo of the Flatiron Building on Houston and West Ninth streets was featured in the book, Ft. Worth’s Legendary Land Marks by Carol Roark, published in 1995, with photos by Byrd Williams IV.
He said he has been shooting photos since the age of 6.
“I have always worked where I lived,” he said. “This has been my project, Fort Worth.”
He sees photography as a way to bring the past alive.
“I’m not religious, but this is my religion,” he said. “It has to do with the afterlife. It is a surrogate afterlife.”
The collection also includes photos that document other parts of Texas, including the Texas-Mexico border, where Byrd Williams II photographed soldiers fighting with Mexican Revolutionary Gen. Pancho Villa near El Paso in 1915.
Gieringer said the collection also tells the story of photography.
“Photography was only invented in the 1830s,” she said. “The Williams collection documents the history of photography as a growing way to capture and document our culture.”
The materials are available for viewing at the UNT library’s reading room in Denton.
Rich in cameras
The first Byrd Williams moved to Gainesville from Tennessee in the 1880s. He opened a hardware and dry goods store on the town square and sold cameras and photo supplies, among other things.
Byrd Williams II worked his way through school at the University of Texas by taking photos. He became an engineer with a camera, documenting projects in El Paso and Fort Worth, where he worked.
Byrd Williams III ran a commercial portrait studio and lab in Fort Worth. Many of his photos also document Depression-era downtown Fort Worth.
“He wanted to be a photojournalist or a journalist,” said Byrd Williams IV, who now lives in Gainesville.
The fourth Byrd Williams said he started out shooting neighbors in the Westcliff and South Hills neighborhoods of Fort Worth.
“I always thought I was sort of lucky,” he said. “We never had money, but it seemed like this was better. We were rich in the way of cameras and film.”
Neighbors became used to the camera as Williams documented childhood races and fights. Later, he took his camera to downtown Fort Worth, Europe and even behind the scenes with televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
“It’s been a privilege,” Williams said. “I woke up and it was already going. It’s been a privilege to be a part of it.”