Written by Wittliff student worker, Hannah Alvarado.
Representing the life of an artist using only their photographs is a seemingly impossible task. Especially a life as singularly impactful as photographer, screenplay writer, author and The Wittliff Collection’s late founder, Bill Wittliff.
David Coleman, The Wittliff’s director since 2011, is one of three contributors who took on this challenge; he, along with Joe Pat Davis, Bill Wittliff’s personal assistant for several years, and Carla Ellard, The Wittliff’s photography archivist, handpicked the images for Blessings and Besos, a new exhibition that pays homage to Wittliff. This incredible collection of images includes many well known Wittliff photographs but also some others that, while Wittliff had printed them for exhibition, have never before been seen by the public.
“Working on this exhibition was bitter-sweet. It was a labor of love,” Coleman said. Coleman has a background in art history with a concentration in photography. “I miss him.” Coleman said, as he considered Wittliff to be “a friend and a mentor.” The Wittliff Collections staff had another exhibition planned for this fall, but they changed directions after Wittliff’s passing. “It was an easy decision to postpone all we had planned,” Coleman said.
He also spoke about his personal and emotional difficulty when contributing to this impromptu exhibition, “This was tough to do. It’s a show that Bill would never let me do before. This is the first full retrospective we have ever done on his work.” When asked why, Coleman said, “Bill loved celebrating other people’s art, and focusing The Wittliff Collections’s attention on them.” When asked what Coleman feels is most special about this particular exhibition, Coleman said, “There’s a real magic to Bill’s approach to capturing and making images. Bill and I would sit on his front porch and talk about photography,” Coleman said.
They spoke about photographic history, art, and techniques such as Pinhole photography. According to Coleman, “Bill saw Pinhole as the perfect marriage between having control and giving some of that control back to nature.” A pinhole camera is a simple camera
without a lens and can be effectively considered a light-proof box with a small hole in one side. Light from a scene passes through the aperture and projects an inverted image on the opposite side of the box, which is known as the camera obscura effect. For Bill, a few old Lonestar beer cans served as the light-proof boxes, and they produced some of the most surreal work in the exhibition.
When asked about a favorite memory that he shared with Bill, Coleman spoke of a trip to photograph the iconic mansion from the movie ‘Giant’ starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. The set piece is now in ruins and on private land “all the way out near Marfa, Texas.”
After several attempts to gain permission to take photographs on the land, Wittliff worked his magic, and they were finally allowed access to see it when “The owner found out it was for Bill Wittliff – they said yes. It was very windy that day, and Bill was having difficulty with his film camera. It was hard to get a good shot.” Coleman said. “Bill tried taking photos while his wife Sally chased the cows away.” Coleman said that he was able to witness Bill in his artist-mode. “It was a side of him I hadn’t gotten to see, and it was a real treat. The funny thing is, after all that fussing and fumbling, his best shots were taken with his phone! All of it edited with an app!” The best one featured in the Blessings and Besos exhibition. When asked if Wittliff was frustrated by the best photos being digital ones, Coleman said, “Oh no, he loved it. He wasn’t afraid to embrace new technology.” Coleman added “Artists and great photographers can shape light and time and space to suit their purposes. They live on a different plane of existence. Artists have that magic. Bill had that power. He could see it, and now through Blessings & Besos, we can too.”
Blessings and Besos opened Sep 09, 2019 and is set to run through the next two semesters.
This article was written by Hannah Alvarado, a Senior at Texas State University.