There was just one photo before. Had you gone looking for his work at the Arkansas Arts Center before July 8, searched the backroom and other rooms for signs of the Arkansas photographer William E. Davis, the chances that you’d have found something are slim—there was just that one portrait of Winthrop Rockefeller, a photograph prized more for the subject than the man who depressed the shutter. On the contrary, had you gone back in the following days, been allowed into the backrooms via key card, you would’ve found more. Sorted by size in box after box, there would have been hundreds of images—500 finished and matted, stamped with his name and address—as well as negatives, prints with crop marks, daybooks and a wooden display stand, all of which would give some sense of the man’s life dedicated to his craft.
“Davis’ subject matter in Arkansas is very diverse,” wrote Alan Dubois, whose family provided the collection to the Arts Center. “Many images involve architecture: industrial buildings, machines, grain elevators, cotton gins, barns, churches and abandoned buildings. Also included are details of doors, windows, siding, hardware and machinery.” Although much of Davis’ varies in terms of scope and focus, there’s at least one thematic element that seems consistent through it all: the way these images practically demand the viewer to reconsider life’s minutiae, to make an effort to see it in a different light. Baling wire is like calligraphy, and a flake of paint in one print is an entire galaxy thrown across the image. The concrete stubble in one photo is like sandpaper you can practically feel grating against your fingers. Looking at Manifold (bottom row, last photo), says curator Ann Wagner, who spent months with fellow curator Brian Lang poring over the boxes to choose materials for the center’s permanent collection, she can’t help but feel like it’s an animal. “It’s almost like a multiheaded worm or something, a hydra,” she says. “It feels as if it’s moving, as if it’s got a personality and a history to it.”
To look at even a small sampling of those photographs in the backroom—black-and-white prints spanning decades and decades of work by the Arkansas photographer who died in February of last year—is to see an evolution with respect to aesthetic and technique. But even though it’s possible to compare and contrast the 25 images created between 1993 and 2007 that comprise this month’s introductory show, Ann recommends visitors do one thing first with each individual photo: “Enjoy the sheer physical composition of it.” —jph
Seeing the Essence: Photographs by William E. Davis is on display at the Arkansas Arts Center from Jan. 24 to April 16, 2017.
All images courtesy of the William E. Davis Estate, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection