Laura Wilson, the American West, and That Day

Laura Wilson’s photographs have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers, including The New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Her work has been the subject of four books, the latest titled Avedon at Work (2003), which documents one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, Richard Avedon, at work on one of the same century’s great projects, In the American West (1985). Her latest exhibition, That Day: Laura Wilson, was organized by John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the museum, and opens September 5 at the Amon Carter. Wilson recently spoke with us...

How did being such a close student of Avedon’s process and work inform your own? I‘m naturally inclined, as Dick was, to be extremely interested in people and being responsive to their condition, their plight, their wonder. I also think I have an almost unreasonable desire to record what is before me. Dick’s creative process was an enormous influence. It wasn’t that we ever spoke of f-stops or shutter speeds, but we constantly talked about the emotion expressed on a person’s face and the way in which they stood or held themselves. A portrait is a collaboration. A strong portrait, a memorable portrait, isn’t necessarily about an individual’s beauty or handsomeness; it is accomplished when the photographer and subject work together, often without words or direction, to make an image that reveals something truthful about the human condition.

Is it possible to photograph in the American West outside its entrenched and overpowering sense of myth? The challenge is to take this entrenched myth and not be overpowered by it, but to be inspired and to expand upon it. Certainly the photographs of the men on the Y-6 Ranch reinforce the myth, but it is my hope that the portrait of the women and my recollection of their conversations expand the conventional view of ranch life. On another subject, perhaps an attempt to expand the myth is what drew me to fighter pilots in Fallon, Nevada. Are they the contemporary extension of the lone hero, the moral gunfighter? Or I may be working to counter the myth, as in the photographs along the Frontera. Dog fighting and cockfighting certainly rebut the myth of frontier righteousness. It seems critical to me for anyone working in the West to have this most American of myths always in your eye line, to constantly work to counter or extend it.

So often a viewer wonders about a subject in a photograph. This is the case for me with your beautiful image Emma. What can you tell us about her and “that day” you photographed her? Emma was a spirited, beautiful girl with a strong personality who lived, and still does live, in the Montana Hutterite colony in which she was born. She was 16 or 17 the summer afternoon this photograph was taken. I had known her for several years. She stood out among all the other young women in the colony because she was so pretty and lively and humorous. She had finished school by then, as Hutterites do after they complete the eighth grade. The evening I photographed her, she had worked during the day along with the other unmarried girls in the colony vegetable garden and helped prepare meals for the seventy or so colony members. After her chores were completed, the evening was cool and we walked up on a hill above the colony. She stood facing the waning light as the wind caught her dress in the breeze. Emma is married now with children of her own, older than she was when I took this photograph. I haven't seen her for fifteen years.

What is the biggest challenge for the documentary photographer? There is, of course, the question of subject matter. What is fresh? That is the challenge. Have you been astute or lucky enough to find something that's never been photographed before? Or can you bring new insight to a more familiar subject? Then, there is the body of work of the greatest of documentary photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photographs stand like a beacon of accomplishment to all photographers. He spent his life walking and looking and photographing with a little Leica camera and made the most brilliant observations of the geometry and the emotion and the wonder of life. It is his work that we must all measure ourselves against.

Can you tell us about a shot you still regret missing? I was in Kansas City seventeen years ago in a small, dingy room off the main waiting area of the Greyhound Bus Station. A middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, sat at the desk of the station manager. She told him she had no more money for the next leg of her journey. She quietly spoke of her need to get home. Her mother was dying, alone with no one to help. I knew the woman was about to cry. I had to turn away. I couldn't bear to hear the click of the shutter against the profound grief of her voice.

What kind of camera do you use? Until two years ago, I shot everything with film. I used Tri-X rated at 320. I used my Hasselblad for portraits and my Nikon F-5 for reportage. Now, I use a Nikon D-800 with a 24, 35, 85, and 105 lens and then 2 zoom lenses: 14-24 and 24-70. This Nikon is a great camera. It's so smart I could stay home in bed, send the camera out on its own, and it would come back to the studio with great photographs.