Saturday, June 13, 2009

Photographer Laura Wilson

Deborah Voorhees

Weighted down with camera equipment, international photographerLaura Wilson crosses a crowded border bridge into Mexico's Nuevo Laredo.

It's broad daylight and very close to the immigration station. Seemingly undeterred, would-be immigrants pop out from behindbushes that line the Rio Grande's edge and wade across the murkywaters.

Suddenly, a dead body is spotted floating by. But Ms. Wilson's reaction isn't to recoil in fear, go for help or even call the authorities. "Immediately, the photographer kicks in and you know it's apicture. My first thoughts were `f16 at 250, actually f16 at 500' -it was a very bright day."

This 56-year-old photographer, whose striking good looks havebeen likened to film actress Jessica Lange's, has made documenting little-known or dying American subcivilizations her life's work.

Most recently, the faces of the Texas/Mexico border have aroused her curiosity: dogs sniffing out men huddled in trucks under heavy canvas tarps as they attempt to cross the border; socialites of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo dressed in elaborate $20,000 gowns for the debutante ball honoring "El Presidente George Washington and the First First Lady."

In the past, she has turned her lens to the dusty cowboys of Watt Matthews' ranch as well as to the man himself - one of the last great Texas cattlemen. In Montana, she has focused on the isolated Hutterite colonies, where these Christian pacifists commune.

"What I'm interested in are the enclosed worlds - groups who live outside the cultural, economic and social mainstream of America, " says Ms. Wilson, as she relaxes at home on a cream-colored couch with Navajo rugs at her feet and on the wallbehind her.

"A girl growing up in San Diego dresses in the same clothes, watches the same TV, reads the same magazines as a girl in Portland, Maine." Ms. Wilson searches for those who don't subscribe to the homogeneous American landscape.

Here, in her sprawling, ranch-style Dallas home, her love of the West is evident with tastefully decorated rooms in Western and Southwestern motifs. Several late-19th-century buffalo prints hang on the walls, as do 19th-century Plains Indian clothes with detailed beadwork.
In her office, floor-to-ceiling paneled windows look out over her wooded yard with the larger-than-life buffalo created by artist Bob "Daddy-O" Wade and the swimming pool where she exercises.

From here, she plans her projects and fields calls from editors of The New Yorker, London's The Sunday Times - The Magazine, Texas Monthly, Germany's fashion magazine Marie Claire and The New YorkTimes Magazine - all vying for her time.

The latter recently ran a photo essay on female Olympic athletes. Inside, the deck proclaimed "15 of the greatest female athletes shot by 15 of the greatest female photographers." Her shot of Sheryl Swoopes, the basketball player, took the cover.

Her provocative photographs of the Hutterites have beenp ublished in this month's Aperture - an honor akin to a writer getting into The New Yorker. Her shot of five Hutterite women sitting on a hill of hay made the cover.

Ms. Wilson is an intensely private woman who measures everything she says for the printed word. She's not particularly fond of this talk-show mentality where everyone shares life's intimate details. And when she does share, she wants to give a full and precise answer.

She has a quiet elegance and confidence. Her posture is perfect and even when she hurries, her walk is more of a glide - the same one Henry Higgins taught his protege in My Fair Lady. She wears little makeup and is as comfortable in running gear as silk. She has a love for literature and lives by the quote from Henry James: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."

"Intense" is the word that repeatedly comes up when others describe Ms. Wilson. "Her quality ranks among the best, " says Pat Vanecek, a photographer and printmaker who assists Ms. Wilson onher shoots and in the darkroom. "The hardest part is to get a print she's happy with. At times she's difficult, but in the long run it's improved my printmaking ability."

Ms. Wilson's fascination with the photographic image began early, while she grew up in the small country town of Norwell, Mass.

"I've always had a reverence for the photograph, " she recalls. "As a child, I remember being stuck at home sick and spending hours going through family photographs. I was so struck by what my father looked like at a time when he was younger than I was and by what my mother looked like as a college girl. It's just so miraculous that you can see someone in another time.

"Photographing is about staving off loss - loss of place, youth, family."

Ms. Wilson credits her father for piquing her curiosity in people - crucial to her work. Everyone has a story, she says, if you take the time to listen.

"My father wasn't a writer, but he had a writer's sensibility -a true storyteller, " says Ms. Wilson. "I grew up going places with him and listening to his stories - meeting unusual people."

One day, she and her father were on horseback, riding through the woods - it was a cold February with snow on the ground. The sun was brilliant and bright. "We came out of the woods into a clearing and all of a sudden the horses stopped short, " she says. "Out of the woods came a man just raving with his hair all matted and dirty- no shirt on. And, of course, we're all bundled up against the cold. He was very tan and muscular and talking nonstop.

"I was startled and the horses were startled. My father just talked very calmly to him, and I could tell he was enjoying the conversation. I couldn't understand a word the man was saying. He seemed to becrazed and completely separated from reality. The man abruptlyturned and went back into the woods and we rode on. I asked my dad, `Who was that?' He said, `That was Doe Macy. He's the last of the great whaling-ship-building Macy family of Nantucket.' "

In this small Puritan town, Ms. Wilson met a real cross-section of people. "I went to grade school with a girl who had one dress -a thin, pale pink dress - she wore day after day, even in winter, "she says. "Another classmate would go to the Bahamas for vacation."

Having relationships with a variety of people gave her the ability to talk with anyone. This has proved beneficial more than once: There was the time the London's Sunday Times editor gave her an assignment to photograph sculptor Donald Judd from Marfa, Texas. (Shots from this photo shoot also appeared in Texas Monthly.)

"When we first met him, he didn't want to give us any time or access to anything at all, " says Ms. Vanecek. "He was very stand offish." At first, he would consent only to being followed on the property for candid shots. Ms. Wilson needed several hours so she could put him in a variety of places. It wasn't long before Ms.Wilson charmed him.

"By the end of that evening, we were sitting in one of his buildings drinking vodka with him, " says Ms. Vanecek. "Two hourslater, we finished off the bottle, and he gave us the next two days- not totally - but a lot more time."

Her ability to get others to warm up to her also came in handy when she began her apprenticeship with Richard Avedon, the renownedAmerican fashion photographer. The Amon Carter Museum commissioned him to produce In the American West, a photographic book of the men and women who do uncelebrated jobs of the West.

During the summers of 1979 through 1985, Ms. Wilson, Mr. Avedon and two assistants traveled through 17 Western states in a Suburban- going through the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, fromCentral Texas to the Sierra Nevada range, and from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande. They went to fairs, rodeos, coal mines, uranium mines, the kill floor of meat packing houses - wherever there were large gatherings of the working class.

In the end, they photographed 752 people; the final book included 124 images.
"Dick gave me my Ph.D. in photography, " says Ms. Wilson. "It wasn't the technical aspect of photography. It was about how to approach a project. How to present it. How seriously you should take the work. It's a great experience to see how someone who's at the top of his profession does it. There's no better way to learn."

Ms. Wilson's jobs were many. She not only documented the trip with her camera and wrote the text for the book, but also handled the research.

"Laura subscribed to every newspaper in the West, which meant she soon knew who all the newspaper editors were, the politics of the towns and where to find all the fairs, " says Mr. Avedon by phone from his studio in New York. "She did incredible research. She knew the West as if it was her own back yard.

"By the time we'd get into a town, she knew who to speak to, had already made arrangements to have dinner with key people in the town, and had updated me on what kind of cooperation we could expect.

"She briefed me almost like a presidential briefing, " says Mr.Avedon. "She was not only the front-runner, but she set the tone for the whole project. She never failed me and, at the same time, she never stopped photographing our trip. It's an amazing body of work. She'll publish it one day."

After updating Mr. Avedon, Ms. Wilson would then approach the subject. "She is immaculate and has the air of the school principal, " says Mr. Avedon. "Laura carries with her an authority and decency; she's a rare beauty. Everyone wants to say yes to Laura. She simply was never refused."

All day and well into the evening, she and Mr. Avedon would discuss photography. "Laura never stopped questioning why I was doing what I was doing, " he says. "There's nothing I like to do more than to talk about photography. Laura always knew how to catch my interest. She's an A-plus student, as you can see."

On the road, Mr. Avedon says, she treated him and his assistants as if they were her sons, teaching them to starch their shirts and insisting on clean shirts for dinner.

"She had these beautiful Mexican dresses - cotton ones that were sort of loose - with embroidery at the top and always perfectlypressed, " says Mr. Avedon. "She'd wear different ones every night.It was such a pleasure to see her, we all felt we had to have cleanshirts and ties on."

Five days after she finished her work with Mr. Avedon, Ms.Wilson's passion for the West brought her to Watt Matthews' Lambshead ranch, a 62-square-mile spread about 140 miles west of Fort Worth. It was 1985. There, she began her first major work.

When she started the series, she wasn't sure whether she could make a book of photographs from such a small population of people. In short order, she realized she had roped a true American legend: At age 97, Watt Matthews still reigns in much the same way his father did more than 100 years ago. For the next four years, she returned to the ranch again and again.

"Watt's a direct link to the frontier, " she says with a sense of awe. "Where I grew up, there would be 11 generations going back tothe first settlers. Watt's one generation removed from the actual frontier. His mother was a child of the frontier. His uncle was shot by the Comanches. He carried an arrowhead in his back for 15years."

In her book, Watt Matthews of Lambshead, published by theTexas State Historical Association, Ms. Wilson captures the rawnessof the land and the people.

"His way of life is so fragile that even people who have been in ranching for generations are wondering what's going to happen to the American West, " she says. "I was talking to one rancher, Bob Green, who said, `I'm beginning to feel like an Indian.' "

Her greatest coup to date is gaining entree into the secluded world of the Hutterites, a relationship that started in 1983 whenshe helped Mr. Avedon get brief access to a couple of the colonies.

Three years later, she began her own 10-year exhaustive documentation. This religious sect - which originated in Moravia in the 16th century - lives in colonies of 35 to 150 people. Like the Amish, they shun the modern world: no television, no cars, no telephones. The only exception they make is to use high-tech equipment for farming. Schooling stops at the eighth grade. Making her job all the more difficult, photography is usually forbidden. It's considered vain glorious (their homes don't even have mirrors except for a tiny one by the sink to straighten their scarves).

Regardless, Ms. Wilson's fascination with these men in black peasant work clothes and women in modest, high-necked dresses kept her going back. Her pleas for access were met with much resistance. She went from colony to colony, most of the time being politely refused.

After several trips, as the Hutterites started to trust her, she made inroads. She began staying in several of the colonies for two weeks at a time. Things still weren't easy. Every time she wanted to click a photo, she asked permission. Sometimes the answer was yes, and very often it was no.

"The work was long and slow, " she says. "I have great admiration for what they're trying to do, which is to hold on to their way of life - spiritual life, family life - to stay close to the land and close to each other. They're trying to lead an idealized life against the odds."

During Ms. Wilson's visits, she grew fond of them and they of her. They brought her into their homes and shared their world and conversation.

"The great drama of Hutterite life is the young girl finding a boy and her going to see him or him going to see her, " Ms. Wilson says. The rituals of courtship are even more dramatic there than here because they don't have TV, movies and videos to steal their attention.

The adults were dazzled by the cost of her camera equipment."The children would ask me, `Laura, why doesn't your hair ever grow?' " she says. "They don't cut their hair. They braid it and wear it under starched kerchiefs."

The Hutterite photographs as well as the ones from Watt Matthews' ranch opened the door for her to exhibit in London at the Special Photographers Company, which now represents her, as does the AfterImage Gallery in Dallas.

"She thinks about the people she's photographing first, " says Catherine Turner, the owner of the London gallery. "A lot of photographers can find quite cruel situations, which they used for dramatic effect. She could have portrayed them and their values as absurd. Yet she never exploits them. She gives them dignity." Currently, Ms. Wilson is working on a book about the Hutterites.

In many ways, Ms. Wilson's own upbringing reflects the rural life of the Hutterites. "I only have one older sister, but I have a large extended family, so I'm used to the fun and commotion of a large family, " she says. "There were no TVs, no movie theaters, no book stores. We had very little outside stimulus. We relied on family and a community of friends for entertainment." For Thanksgiving they'd have 45 people over, and Christmas was a festival of activity, going from one relative's home to another.

It was Ms. Wilson's mother, now 88, who urged her and her sister to get a good education and to follow what interested them. "She brought out the best in us because she was so loving and giving and unselfish, " says Ms. Wilson. "You never questioned that you were loved - that gives you a loyalty to life, a confidence about yourself."

Heeding her mother's advice, she did what many young girls in the early 1960s did: She enrolled in a small woman's school -Connecticut College for Women. She studied painting, English and art history. "There were no sororities or anything like that, " she recalls. "It was just work, but the education was excellent."

There she met her husband-to-be, Robert Wilson, on a blind date. Robert's sister was going out with a boy much older than her, so his mother insisted that the two be chaperoned. The boy set Robert up with his cousin, who turned out to be Laura.

"I wasn't that good of a chaperone, but it turned out to be very lucky for me, " says Mr. Wilson. "I kind of pushed things along by asking her to marry me on the second date. . . . I really wasn't teasing. I just liked her a lot."

They married three years later, when she was 23. A year later, in 1964, she gave birth to their first son, Andrew. In 1966, the couple moved to Dallas, and Owen and Luke came soon after.
She was a hands-on mother. When her three boys were at home, she scheduled visits to the museum, ran foot races with them and often took them to Watt Matthews' ranch and on excursions through the American West during her apprenticeship with Mr. Avedon.
She encouraged her boys to play outside and explore.

"We had this great Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn type of growing up, " says Owen, speaking from New York, where he's stopped on business to finish a screenplay for New Line Cinema. "She had a real sense of fun and adventure."

All three of her sons now live in Hollywood andwork in the film industry. Their movie, Bottle Rocket, came out on video earlier this fall. Owen wrote the script and all three brothers starred in it.

"Mom gave us a sense of possibility, " says Owen. "She showed us we could live a creative life - take risks. Thank God she did it. In my case, if you look at my transcripts, you know there was no threat that I would become a lawyer or doctor."

As a wife, Ms. Wilson had this same adventurous spirit. When her husband wanted to walk away from a lucrative promotion at the Public Broadcasting System, where he was president of KERA (Channel 13), to start his own business, she didn't flinch.

"If I was scared, she must have been scared, too, but she didn't show it, " says Mr. Wilson, who now owns an advertising company."She has always been supportive and caring of me when I wanted tomake a change - not blind support but a willingness to take risks."

As a young mother, she stayed home photographing the boys. The results went from simple snapshots to something more.

"Her real work started in the mid-'70s, " says Mr. Wilson."There's one shot of the boys - two of them on the horse and Luke standing in front of the horse - that to me marked the beginning of her career. It was beyond a snapshot. Not to overdramatize it, but you felt the uncertainty of life with the three boys."

Soon after, the couple built a darkroom." She'd come whipping out of there with the excitement of seeing the pictures, " says Mr.Wilson."There was just something in the sound of her voice when she was holding those wet prints that I knew she found something shereally loved."

Now, she fits her on-the-border series in among her demanding editorial work. Some of these shots - socialites of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo preparing for their debutante ball - ran in a Texas Monthly photographic spread in March 1995. "I had assumed there would be lots of Latina girls in simple white dresses. But it was girls of all different backgrounds - Anglo and Mexican - coming out in these amazing, elaborate dresses that take a year of peasant labor to assemble with beads and pearls and rhinestones and glitter."

Getting to the debutante cotillion is no easy matter. The dresses are so huge the girls can't get into a car, van, bus or limousine. Rather, they're strapped in three and four at a time into an 18-wheel moving van.

The strength of this image sparked a new project for Ms. Wilson. "From my three extended trips to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, I realized that it too is a world apart from mainstream America, like Watt Matthews and the Hutterites. The border - running 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific ocean - is its own separate world."

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