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Photographs of future dead people

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Byrd Williams IV portrait

Shown is a portrait of Natalie Marie Barnhart, Gary Wayne II, Gary Wayne III and Arlo Wayne for Byrd Williams IV's exhibit, “Walking Dead: A Visual Ethnography,” on view at the UNT CoLab Gallery through Nov. 13, 2021.

Over the past three years, in an austere home studio above Cowhide Western Furniture in Denton, photographer Byrd Williams IV has posed his subjects against plain backgrounds in natural light. With a click of his large-format camera shutter, Williams shepherds his visitors into the future.

Williams wryly refers to his subjects as “future dead people.” From his studio sessions, he has produced archival prints in a collection he calls, “Walking Dead: A Visual Ethnography.” While many of us believe we are using photography to document the present, Williams is explicitly looking forward to how these his photographs will, in the future, represent the past. Williams estimates the gold chloride compact prints will last 400 to 800 years. “These photographs are the closest to time travel we’re going to get to do,” he says. “I can send them forward to the unborn.”

Williams is now showing the work at the UNT CoLab Gallery on the corner of North Elm and Pecan streets in downtown Denton. We interviewed Williams in 2019, during his production of this work. In this video feature, Williams explores the philosophical underpinnings of the project.

Byrd Williams IV portrait

Shown is a portrait of Melanie Gomez Little Smith for Byrd Williams IV's exhibit, “Walking Dead: A Visual Ethnography,” on view at the UNT CoLab Gallery through Nov. 13, 2021.

Williams started shooting for "Walking Dead" when he moved to Denton in October 2018, photographing North Texans in their everyday clothing so future historians may study the dress and culture of today's society, lending the project an ethnographic dimension. “I’m more of a historian than an artist in this role,” he says.

Photographs from the project have been donated to Byrd Williams Family Photography Collection in the libraries of the University of North Texas, which already holds more than 10,000 prints and 300,000 negatives, diaries and letters from the Williams family.

The photographs for "Walking Dead" were shot on three vintage wooden view cameras each with a different size film: 8-inch x 10-inch negative, 11-inch x 14-inch negative and 12-inch x 20-inch negative. Williams relied on natural light from a window in his studio to shoot each of his images. Participants were required to stand completely still for about 3-10 seconds, unblinking and holding their breath to prevent motion blur in the resulting image. On overcast days, sessions were canceled for lack of sufficient light.

Williams is the fourth in a patrilineal line of photographers name Byrd Williams. "Part of the fascination of doing this is to actually use the same cameras with the same technique [as the previous Byrd Williams]," he says. "My great-grandfather and grandfather photographed portraits at open windows. They didn't have flash or strobe in those days, so they did time exposures. I'm trying to keep it real. I'm trying to keep that look exactly the same."

Williams’ exhibit, “Walking Dead: A Visual Ethnography,” is on view at the UNT CoLab Gallery through Nov. 13.

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