“PROOF” is a visual story in which readers do not have time to connect with the characters but are intrigued by their vignettes regardless. After flipping through the nonfictional, nonlinear story, Texan readers may feel a weird mixture of wistfulness and deja vu seeing their state from the perspective of mostly long gone photographers.
The gritty archive compiled by Byrd Williams IV, the lone survivor of his Texan clan, consists primarily of photos with the occasional letter and certificate of death. The photos are wide-ranging, running from family portraits to street photography to landscape shots to raw images. It provides readers with a glimpse of Texas history going as far back in some photos as 1890. Williams comes from a line of photographers, also named Byrd Williams.
Family Album, the first section in the book, serves as a nod to the brevity of life in hindsight. It begins with the words “memento mori,” Latin for “remember you must die.”
As you are introduced to each family member, they are succinctly whisked away by death in the following paragraph or frame. Williams includes alongside the portraits scanned copies of artifacts, such as a suicide note and a blood-stained handkerchief, punctuating the message that death is imminent.
“In 1960 Dad handed me his Rolleiflex and so I made a photograph of him smoking,” Williams wrote. “Then five minutes later he got throat cancer, then a stroke, and finally a heart attack made him a part of the past.”
Williams’ triptychs, art divided into three sections, of certain family members mirror the succinct written intros and outros by providing three adjacent photos that swiftly depict life, transformation and death.
This is not a happy introduction, and that is part of its charm. When thinking of family albums, one may visualize smiling class photos and snaps from a fun gathering. Instead, being curated by the last person in the family, it showcases the reality of life: you live for a little bit, then, onset by health issues, mental fragility or guns, you die. It’s storytelling at its finest by including the grim details alongside the beaming faces.
The book continues in a less personal way, displaying landscapes, architecture and people across Texas. By doing so it allows readers to connect with Texas and its past.
The image that intrigued me most was that of four 6-year-old boys wearing sequined shorts at dance school. The shorts, short enough to be briefs, lend the idea that the time didn’t have stringent expectations of masculinity as is occasionally demonstrated by Texan men today. This point is further made by the expressions of the boys, which aren’t embarrassed nor uncomfortable.
The book creeps back into darkness when it gets to the section titled Violence and Religion in Texas, juxtaposing one practice with the other, pointing out the cultural attributes are not necessarily Texan but are still embedded in the state’s identity.
The first half of the photos depict men with guns and boys with guns. The firearms portion ends with a striking image, an incredibly destroyed face—well what was once a face—at a crime scene. The mutilated visage is so raw and severe the scene seems unreal. From there, it’s a few fist fights and televised healings.
The two subjects, violence and religion, would seem to have nothing to do with one another when stripped of the people who use them. The section portrays the irony in a culture that reveres firearms as well as devotes its time to a love-centered practice.
“PROOF” contains a few arrestive images but the rest would not be as remarkable without one another, Williams’ narrative and the Texan roots. Collectively “PROOF” provides a fascinating yet macabre glimpse of Texas’ history.
Williams described his family as a group of observers. Those who would appreciate “PROOF” would also no doubt be those who observe.
“PROOF,” published by University of North Texas Press, is available for purchase on Amazon.