Friday, December 5, 2014

Bill Wittliff goes deep in film, fiction and photography

I interviewed the screenwriter Bill Wittliff (Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall) for the cover story in this week's Austin Chronicle about his novel The Devil's Backbone. One part of the interview that didn't make it into print involved a picture on his office wall from his photo book Boystown.  Right under a photo he took of Willie Nelson and above Wittliff's hat hangs a photo that intrigues.

(This blog post will also appear over at the Elephant Gun photo collective, which claims me as a member.)

Here's what Wittliff had to say:

Back in 1974 I was working on the screenplay for what would become the film A Night in Old Mexico. Part of the action ran through Boystown. I got in a lot of trouble there with my two cameras. But I went back the next night and fell in with a photographer who for $2 will take your picture with your drunk friend and some prostitute. They were all shooting these old Argus C3s. We went on these back streets of Boystown. Here was their little studio. There was a guy in a closet with an old Durst enlarger and three pans of chemicals. They would take a piece of 35mm frame, lay it in the back of their camera, close it, take one picture and run back. This guy would stick them in the Durst, make one little print, run it through the chemicals, wipe it on his pants and dry it with a hair dryer. He’d staple it in a little cardboard frame. Off they’d go to get their two bucks. I looked behind the enlarger and there was a stack of cut 35mm frames. They were all stuck together. I peeled one off, looked at it in the light and knew no gringo could ever get these pictures. I said, “quantos pesos?” They said, “no, no, the Federales.” But I said, “For history, for posterity.” One of them said, “Maybe for money.” I bought that stack of negatives and soaked them in the lavatory in my motel. Even in that 40 negatives there were five or six that I knew were really human. I had a friend who ran a shop in Nuevo Laredo. He went with me the next morning and found one of those guys. I said, “I want to buy your negatives every week.” He’d bring them to my friend. I bought their negatives for a year and a month. Then they got scared. I wound up with somewhere close to 7,000 negatives.

That’s one of the ones I liked the most.  They were cracked. Cut. Chemical stains. Smears from wiping it on their jeans to dry. This is before computers. I would sit there and retouch. Not that one. It wasn’t as bad. There were some where I’d take one print and get my retouch deals--not trying to totally clean them up, but just where they were presentable, where a scar or scratch through the picture didn’t interrupt the content. I would turn the TV on to watch a pro game. I’d start when the game started and I’d still be working when it was over.

Look at that picture. That’s his toolbox on the table. No doubt he’s got a pickup parked outside. He’s going home from work. He’s stopped, I don’t think for sex. I think he stopped for a little companionship. She’s somebody who doesn’t want to be owned. She’s turning slightly away. This is how she makes her living. He whole world is in that little change purse. She’s got a gold tooth. If you go close to it, you’ll see there’s one tooth that’s kind of shining. I just think that’s a whole world in that picture. I think that picture is real art. But these photographers are not trying to make art. They’re trying to make a couple of bucks.

It’s a very cool picture just in terms of composition, the toolbox and all that, but the real content is human.

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