Iconic American West Photographer Laura Wilson Gets a Fayetteville Moment
This artistic force has six books to date and two more upcoming, including one with rare Hollywood access due to her sons, actors Andrew, Luke and Owen Wilson
Editor’s note: Catherine D. Anspon converses with the talent who’s made a lifetime of photographing the faces, lives, places and paradoxes that define the constantly shifting landscape of the American West.
Red & White Gallery’s presentation of Laura Wilson’s retrospective is in Fayetteville, Texas, organized by Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum. Acquire works exclusively on Culture Place through March 31.
Laura Wilson is an iconic American photographer with six books to date and two more upcoming, including one with rare Hollywood access due to her sons, actors Andrew, Luke and Owen Wilson. She also has works in museum collections including the gold standard for photographers, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a duo of definitive exhibitions at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth.
Her five-decade career was honed in 1979 as studio assistant to Richard Avedon for the making of the five-year museum portfolio In the American West, commissioned by the Amon Carter and now considered not only Avedon’s magnum opus but one of the most important photography series in American art history. This experience jump-started Wilson on her life’s work as a photographer with a gift for portraiture, realized in her books such as That Day: Pictures in the American West, Hutterites of Montana, Avedon at Work in the American West, and Watt Matthews of Lambshead.
Now, following a museum retrospective and lifetime honor bestowed by the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Worth, Wilson takes her work to Fayetteville. This month, Red & White Gallery presents 35 images from the museum exhibition “Laura Wilson: Looking West,” an important series of limited-edition black-and-white and color prints shown online and available for acquisition.
PaperCity spoke to Wilson from her Dallas home and studio.
On your Cowgirl Hall of Fame honor.
Laura Wilson: First I was asked if I would like to have an exhibition. Then they asked if I would like to be considered as one of the inductees. And I said, “Well, I guess I would. I don’t want to do the exhibition if I’m not going to be inducted [into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame].” And they said, “Don’t worry about that.”
So, I agreed to have the exhibition. And it is a great honor — I mean, Georgia O’Keeffe and other people of great substance have been inducted. So I was awfully pleased to be considered, especially as I grew up in a small New England town. You can imagine, I’m the only person from my town ever to be inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
On your gift of relating to people.
LW: That’s a key thing for me as a photographer. I’m often surprised when people say, “How do you talk to people? How do you approach people?” Well, if you have to think, ‘How am I going to approach this person,’ you’re already beginning in the ditch.
On your lucky break.
LW: My husband (Bob Wilson) had an advertising and graphic design firm. It was a small, very good firm, and one of his clients was the Amon Carter Museum. He had become very admiring and fond of Mitch Wilder, the director. So Bob called him and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we commissioned Richard Avedon to do a series of portraits of people in the American West.” Mitch said, “Oh, that’s a fantastic idea. Why don’t you get in touch with him, see if he would do it.”
Dick (Avedon) had just had his exhibition at the Metropolitan, which was a big exhibition of his fashion work. He was on the cover of Newsweek, and everyone in the art world was talking about this exhibition of photographs. Bob thought it would be a wonderful way to bring attention from other parts of the country to the Amon Carter Museum. So, Bob called the Avedon studio and spoke directly to Dick. Dick said, “Come on up, and we’ll talk about it.” And I said, “But I’m the one who loves Richard and loves his work.” And Bob said, “Well, all right, you can come, too.”
The three of us met with Richard Avedon. Then Dick came down to Fort Worth and met Mitch Wilder. They got along very well. Mitch agreed to fund a big and expensive project, and Dick said, “I need somebody to do research and give me guidance of where to go in the West.” So I wrote him a letter that said, “I wondered if I might work with you on this project.” I agonized over the letter and reread it and finally sent it off.
And, he phoned. I was so stunned that he called and said, “Yes, I’d like you to work for me on this.” From the first, we got along perfectly, but he was difficult. But I was used to unusual, difficult men
Working with Avedon.
LW: He was extra special. I was already 37 or 38. Bob and I had three children. I was happily married and had a solid base, so I wasn’t dependent upon Dick’s approval. I was doing it because I’m interested in photography and the American West. I also admired his work, but if it hadn’t worked out, it wouldn’t have bothered me.
I was paid practically nothing. Originally, Mitch Wilder and Dick had talked about it being a year-long project. Then, when we did the first location shooting, in Sweetwater, Texas, Dick realized it was huge. When he returned, he said to Mitch and Bob, “Instead of one year, may I make it five — and do it in the good weather.”
He wouldn’t work in the cold, rainy, difficult months, because that’s when people are all bundled up in down jackets and hats. This was in 1979, so the woman’s movement was in full force, but women in Dallas and in Texas weren’t necessarily full tilt in the world of working outside the home. People would say to my husband, “Laura’s been gone. You’re taking care of the boys, and that must be so hard.” And Bob said, “Yes. I’m the architect of my own misery.”
Pre- and post-Avedon.
LW: I was photographing my family because of my interest in Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who had photographed his own family. My boys were wonderful subjects, because they’re so lively and full of fun and doing interesting things. I was photographing them all the time. Really, that’s what I was concentrating on, our family life through them. But I wasn’t really working professionally.
I worked for Dick for six years. Then I went to London with my work. I had three bodies of work: photographing Richard Avedon at work, which became a book; pictures of people up in Montana called the Hutterites; and family life with my boys. I went to three magazines and newspapers, and the first newspaper I went to published one set of pictures, the second took the second batch of pictures, and the third took the third batch of pictures. So it was a trifecta of triumph.
I’d never shown my work before. It was a wonderful experience to have that happen. Exhibitions and books followed after that.
Then I had the Hutterites of Montana, where I went on my own for 12 or 14 years, photographing these people who are very removed from mainstream America. I was interested in the most conservative elements of their life. They don’t love photography, so it took me quite a while to break in.
About Red & White Gallery.
LW: I was working along the border and staying with close friends in Laredo, the Quiroses [Mary and Evan], who moved to Fayetteville and introduced me to Joan and Jerry Herring [who own Red & White Gallery]. They were very enthusiastic about my work and wanted to show it.
I was thinking, ‘I’ve never heard of Fayetteville, so what’s the point of that?’ But they were so convincing, I thought, ‘Well, let them have a try.’ And they did a fantastic job. The work was seen by a lot of people, and it was all bought. It was a very successful show, which pleased me.
Raising actor sons. How you inspired Andrew, Luke, and Owen.
LW: My husband was very creative, imaginative, very passionate, and they responded to his optimism about what they could accomplish. I was the one saying, “Oh I don’t think you should go to Hollywood. What’s going to happen out there? I think you should stay and finish school.” They didn’t finish college, but Bob encouraged them and was very proud of them. To answer your question on the most basic level, I think it comes from within each boy. Each has a sense of imagination and a creative sense.
When they were working on their first movie, Bottle Rocket, the distinguished director/producer Jim Brooks said, “It’s interesting to me that you boys come in here, and you never take notes, you never write anything down.” When they told me that, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how can you boys do that? You’re so lucky to be able to have him respond to your script, why wouldn’t you write things down?’ And they said, “Well, he never said anything we didn’t already know.”
They weren’t lacking humility. They were confident in what they were writing and doing themselves, their own vision.
On what’s next.
LW: I’m working on a behind-the-scenes book of making movies — pictures of directors, actors, cinematographers, lighting, and sound people. What the cameraman is seeing. Another book I’m bringing to completion, hopefully by the spring, is one I’ve been working on for a long time, about writers. I’ve done 34 so far, including three Nobel Prize winners, many Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners. The last one I photographed was J.M. Coetzee, a South African who lives in Australia; he won the Nobel Prize in literature. I might do a book on artists, painters, and architects.
On photographing around Round Top or Fayetteville.
LW: I photographed as a document for myself — the painted churches, which are so breathtakingly beautiful, charming and interesting historically. I haven’t done any work (yet) photographing people.
Laura Wilson offered by Red & White Gallery, exclusively on Culture Place, through March 31..