Willy Bearden

Images from one of Memphis’ best-known filmmakers.


ABOUT THIS SERIES: Memphis has played muse over the years to artists across the spectrum, from the music of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Al Green, and the collective at Stax Records, to the prose of Peter Taylor, Shelby Foote, and John Grisham. But what about visually? The look of Memphis has been described equally as gritty, dirty, active, eerie, beautiful, and captivating.

In this new series, titled “The Mind’s Eye,” Memphis magazine will be taking a closer look at some of this city’s most prominent photographers, a few homegrown, many transplanted, but all drawn in by that grittiness, that activity, that beauty.

Is there something special about the look of Memphis? We’ll ask each and, along the way, learn what makes these photographers tick, what got them started on their professional paths, and what it is that keeps them looking around every corner and down every alley. We’ll turn the camera on the cameramen, as it were, capturing their portraits and seeing what develops. At the same time, we will be showcasing each photographer’s own remarkable work. Hopefully, that will speak for itself. — Richard Alley

In the lobby of Willy Bearden’s rambling studio downtown, across from the elementary school and in the shadow of the abandoned Sterick Building, is an array of vintage cameras — a dual lens Konica and slim Pentax on a tripod, a Nikon SLR that died an untimely death in the sand and surf during one of its many trips to Horn Island off the coast of Mississippi. But you also might find a vinyl blues album, a slim volume of Eudora Welty, and an early model television. Bearden is a collector who throws nothing out, not props, not ideas, not outdated equipment.

And certainly not photographs.

To sit in front of his large-screen Apple monitor as he flips from folder to folder on the desktop is to take a virtual trip to Paris and Amsterdam, to the Gulf Coast and South Memphis. You will certainly be spending some time in the Mississippi Delta. Bearden grew up in its red fields overgrown with green kudzu, three hours south of Memphis in Rolling Fork, seat of Sharkey County. He arrived in Memphis in 1971, at the age of 21, the only way a Delta child of the 1960s (or a bluesman of the 1930s) might: He hitchhiked.

Bearden’s thinning white hair and glasses may hint towards his six decades, but the fervor heard in his voice as he discusses his passion negates those years and the triple-bypass surgery he underwent (in India, of all places) several years ago. There is something of the child in his eyes, too, as there must have been that day in Rolling Fork when a neighbor let him borrow a Polaroid Land camera for the very first time.

“I didn’t call it ‘documenting my world,’ but I was always interested in just the snapshots, just taking the pictures, and I tried to do some creative things when I was a teenager,” he says. “I remember specifically [the neighbor] had one of those gazing globes in his yard and I was fascinated with that thing. I took some pictures of that with the Polaroid.

“I think once you look through a viewfinder, a lot of people get hooked. You look through there and you say, ‘Whatever is in the frame is the only thing that matters to me at this point.’ The extraneous clutter of the world doesn’t matter. I’m focusing on this gazing globe, or I’m focusing on this person’s face.”

His passion for the visual developed early when George Larrimore, a friend working as a producer at Channel 5, asked him to work on a film project.

“I was just there to carry stuff around, and I looked through this Canon Scoopic, which was a 16 mm motion picture camera,” he says, “and it had a zoom lens and, man, I looked through that thing; I don’t think I took that thing away from my eye for the next two hours.”

At the time, Bearden was working for Motion Picture Laboratories, a business that delivered film reels to theatres all around the South, and employed many area photographers. The break room there became like a college classroom for him and he would ask those “professors” question after question about the technical aspects of the art. He soaked up hard information from wherever he could read about it and whoever was willing to talk about it.

“George taught me a lot about photography. He had a Nikon rangefinder camera … and he would let me shoot with that rangefinder; it had a really sharp Nikkor lens and so I started learning it. He kind of gave me permission to shoot anything you want, just try something, you never know until you get the pictures back, right?”

He was brought up with film and still loves the texture and tone of it. Recently coming across a strip of processed film, and without a traditional light box, he taped it to the glass door of his studio. As sunlight poured through, he pointed out the images — a patio in the backyard of a house he used to live in, the tree house where his children played. It was the past leaking through time in eight frames of nostalgia.

When Bearden talks about photographs he’s seen or photographers he admires, it is with the excitement and eagerness of a child discussing Christmas morning. He becomes animated and, as the talk turns to photography in general, a natural curiosity shines through. It is this curiosity that is a main ingredient for the chemical mixture that makes up any good photographer.

During a conversation in his studio, Bearden will say over and over again, “He’s a hell of a photographer.” The names are mostly familiar, from the photojournalism of longtime CA photographer Mike Maple to the artistry of local stalwarts like Murray Riss and William Eggleston. He is generous with praise of his peers, those who came before him and those now well on their way up. Of photographer and entrepreneur Jamie Harmon of Amurica Photo Studios renown, Bearden is emphatic: “I think Jamie is the most important photographer in Memphis.”

What Bearden’s not so emphatic about, however, is his own photography. In fact, this may seem an odd jumping-off point for this magazine’s series on Memphis photography, in that Bearden doesn’t consider himself a photographer at all. He’s a documentary filmmaker better known for the “Memphis Memoirs” series on WKNO-TV featuring Elmwood Cemetery, Overton Park, and the history of the cotton industry; and for his 2010 feature film, One Came Home. Yet Bearden’s a well-rounded visual artist who happens to carry a camera with him at all times. What’s more, he uses that camera relentlessly. What’s even more, his photographs are simply wonderful to look at.

“I don’t mind getting close to people; there’s a freedom that you only gain when you shoot a lot.”

He has the eye of an artist and the conceptualization of a filmmaker. He has the postproduction skills of a painter and, again, the curiosity of a journalist. Last year’s showing of his photographic work at the Leadership Memphis Gallery 363 was a milestone event, hugely popular and well-attended.

In those early days, when the seed of talent germinated in tubs of developer, stop bath, and fixer, what mattered to Bearden, a neighbor’s gazing globe aside, was people. Now, he says, he prefers to shoot landscapes. And his are breathtaking, with wide-open skies of brilliant blues and pinks over a rural church that has seen better, and more populated, days. Many of his landscapes capture those churches and plantation homes left behind, boarded-up homes and businesses in parts of the city long forgotten.

In photographic history terms, popular street scenes of Memphis, it seems, are bookended by the bustling, black-and-white, large-format photographs of Don Newman’s 1940s-, ’50s- and ’60s-era Memphis streets and the ghostly, sparse visions of Bearden. Newman caught what was there; Bearden what is no longer.

He has a habit of getting close to people or to objects, and those people and objects can be found almost anywhere. His fascination lies, not only in who and what he photographs, but with the story they tell through their eyes and smiles, their broken windows and graffiti walls. The cyclical nature of a city, its shifting of people, changes in demographics, and economic levels, is a constant theme. For such a static art as photography, it’s the movement of life that intrigues Bearden.

“I think that, for me, the light is never going to be exactly the same, that building is never going to be exactly the same, the streetscape is never going to be the same as that moment.”

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the father of modern photojournalism, spoke of “the decisive moment,” that optimal instant when a photographer, looking through his viewfinder, chooses to capture the image. His concept might seem less relevant in the twenty-first century when photographers are not beholden to the scant number of frames on a roll of film.

Now is a time when a memory card the size of a thumbnail holds thousands of photos, when a photographer might choose still photos from images captured on a video camera. Perhaps it is the era one lives in that is now the decisive moment. Newman’s decisive moment was the mid-1900s and Memphis’ restless downtown activity. Bearden’s moment is the twenty-first century as the inner city struggles for a comeback.

“Nothing else matters but that decisive moment,” he says. “I think about that a lot because you can shoot and shoot and shoot. The photography of ruin is what we see a lot of … It’s easy, these ruins and things that people don’t normally see, things that people on Facebook don’t normally see, and you show them something because these people may live somewhere where every house in their neighborhood looks essentially the same, every person at their kids’ school looks essentially the same.

“Hell, I’ll get out of the car anywhere. I’m not scared of my fellow man at all. That may be naïve or stupid, but I’ve never been afraid of my fellow man. I talk to people all the time. I’m not a victim.”

The switch to digital was one Bearden embraced wholeheartedly, diving into the earliest models of cameras and postproduction software around 1998 with a cheap, plastic, 1-megapixel Kodak camera. His “go-to” camera now is a Canon 60D with a wide zoom lens.

“It truly was a paradigm shift,” he says. “Here is something that only a very, very few people know how to do and all of a sudden everybody can do it. All of a sudden everybody has a high-resolution camera in their pocket.”

Does he think that such technology will take the place of talent or become the ruination of a passion and profession he’s been linked with for decades? “As my good buddy David Tankersley says, ‘They’ve sold a hell of a lot of pencils, but that hasn’t killed good literature.’” Even if everyone has a camera, there will still be only a scant few who can make art with it.

Along with the technology and an ever-growing roster of photographers comes the proliferation of photographs themselves. These photographs, Bearden believes, should be freely shared. As visual director for the Cotton Museum at the Cotton Exchange Building, he says the task of creating exhibits would not have been possible without readily available images from the National Archives of the Library of Congress. Free photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Walcott from the Farm Security Administration of the 1930s were used extensively throughout.

Bearden has gone back again and again to the Memphis & Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and, as a gesture to that institution, and for the continuity of available historical research, he’s launched something called the Legacy Project on behalf of the library.

The Legacy Project is a direct product of Bearden’s favorite pastime, something he calls “drive and look.” Over the years, he has been systematically photographing street scenes of Memphis, and then donating them to the library system. To date, more than 5,000 images are in the collection, images that future authors, filmmakers, researchers, and the simply curious alike will be able to peruse and use for free, just as he has for his own projects.

Bearden is intensely interested in what can be seen only within his viewfinder, the “extraneous clutter” falling away. To drive the point home one year, on his way to Horn Island for the annual artists’ workshop with Memphis College of Art, he stopped at a WalMart and bought a 5x7 cardboard picture frame matte with the idea of only taking photos through that rectangle held at arm’s length. What was outside of that matte, that clutter, was allowed into the frame, yet would not be the focus.

“I was thinking then about what’s outside the frame, it’s just what I choose to show you,” he says. “I’m going to make your eye go there [to the photograph’s subject] generally, and that’s what I do, but what if you could see everything around it? I was fascinated by just that concept.”

The result? That Horn Island world that is captured through his 5x7 photos are beautiful black-and-white and color shots of sand dunes and the reflective water of bayous. The focus is in the eye of the beholder.

But Willy Bearden still shoots people as well, as the prints hung throughout his studio and the images on his computer monitor attest. He has spent countless hours behind the camera — both still and moving — and has earned considerable respect from those he concentrates his lens upon. For the Legacy Project, he set up a photo booth of sorts in the lobby of the Central Library, and invited passersby to step in front of his camera.

His goal was a simple one, to document the people the way they looked just then, that day, whether it was a man in a suit or a little girl in cut-off shorts and a faded T-shirt. These are all moments in real life, and Bearden captures that life better than most because he cares about his subjects, and as a result, respect and compassion and trust can be seen in every pixilated image and glossy print.

“When you’re shooting friends and family, I think it’s almost palpable that you can feel the love, feel somebody looking at you because they’re not looking at the camera, they’re looking at you.”

Willy Bearden came to Memphis through a circuitous route from Rolling Fork, disillusioned with junior college and a stint at the University of Mississippi, and looking to make his way in what has always been the capital of the Delta, Memphis. He arrived with little more than ideas and curiosity and a willingness to work at a craft, and has become one of the most well-known, and well-respected, documentarians of our time and city.

He once posed the question to novelist, historian, and fellow Delta native Shelby Foote: “Why do you think so many people from the Delta have done well here?” “He said, ‘Hell, we’ve got something to prove.’ And I always kind of felt like I had something to prove. You hitchhike into Memphis and you’re nobody and people don’t pay attention to you, and you might have a little something to prove.

“But within that mindset, I think, is a freedom to go out and do things the way you want to do [them]. Nobody ever asked me to shoot a documentary, I just did it; nobody asked me to start shooting photographs, but I did it. And I think you have to kind of have that moxie, or maybe kind of believe that everybody has a unique vision, and if you stick to it, you learn the technology and it is a balance of art and technology.” 

Native Memphian Richard Alley is a regular contributor to Memphis magazine, MBQ: Inside Memphis Business, The Commercial Appeal, and other local publications. He comes from a family of journalists; his grandfather, Cal Alley, and great-grandfather, J.P. Alley, were long-time editorial cartoonists for the CA. Alley’s short-story, “Sea Change,” was the grand-prize winner in the 2010 Memphis magazine fiction contest.

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