Rick Williams Working Hands
by Roy Flukinger
Rick Williams first saddled up in the early 1980s and rode out with the cowboys who worked the ranches around Albany, Texas, he recognized that he was not pioneering new territories of photo documentation. As ingrained into the folklore and consciousness of this state as the fact and the myth of the cowboy must be, we have long recognized that this particular subject matter has and probably always will attract the visual artists as well as all classes of our society, from writers to tourists to television viewers. The trails that popular culture and romanticism have cut through Texas and the American West are deep and long established, and anyone venturing out across the prairie must negotiate them in their own independent fashion.
What distinguished Williams' vision and interpretation was his interest in these men who work one of the hardest jobs in our nation and yet are traditionally abstracted into certain roles and characters by our modern culture. He eschewed the typical role of visiting professionals who come laden down with equipment and technical assistants into a landscape they do not know and among a people they care about only during their time before the lens. Williams climbed on the horse, lived the life for weeks at a time and learned more than just the names of his subjects. He recognized from the beginning that the cowboys were equal human beings, earning a paycheck, having families and kids and worrying about the same concerns that make up all our workdays, while still engaging in a hard and often uncompromising profession.
Beginning is perhaps the key word here. For the exquisitely composed and insightful images that came out in those first few years were only the start for Williams. His early years of eloquent personal photography showed that he could capture moments between family or friends and elevate them into poetic glimpses into the human condition. His largely urban lifestyle had awakened within him an enriched, natural curiosity for both the intensely human viewpoint as well as the larger cultural issues that permeate the life of each of us. As he himself puts it: "On one level I know that much of what I am seeking is already within me: that many of the discoveries I make in the sharing of my life and the creation of art with these people and with you are self-discoveries and self-revelations. Yet focusing on the lives of others in the images suggests that I am not simply expressing my own ideas. The images of real people at work are both interpersonally representative and intrapersonally symbolic, simultaneously graceful and powerful."
So, by natural instinct and personal commitment, Williams also took the time to look up and look around him, to see what else was going on and how it began to relate to Texans at the end of the 2oth century. First, and perhaps most naturally, he found the oil field workers who shared the same landscapes and towns of West Texas together with the cowboys he knew. So he put on the hard hat, met the men who staked their futures upon the vagaries of geology and industry and proceeded to slake his curiosity by depicting those men and women who embraced another facet of the state's economic platform. If the lifestyle remained largely "rural," it was nonetheless peopled with equally complex individuals and just as subject to the realities and romanticism of our society as his previous subjects. The cowboy's song had changed its instrumentation, but the words and tune were as equally encompassing of the emotions and dreams of its singers.
Then, the leap: into the 1990s and the future. Back home in Austin, he found the burgeoning high-tech industries that were shaping the new Texas economy. The landscape and the location had changed dramatically, of course. But had the people as well? Williams changed hats again, literally, put on the white robe, entered the clean rooms and corporate boardrooms and brought his cameras into the cleanest environment they had experienced in some time. And there, beyondthe security and filters, behind the face masks and eye goggles, he found yet another proud song led by yet another body of working Texans: "Ion conductors of electronic symphonies [that] hum sweet music on the frontier of technology." On the surface the change may appear dramatic, but within the people — where Williams hums away while keeping eyes and camera working in unison — they share the same drive, the same concerns, the same heart.
In part this is a fairly obvious comparison: certainly true when we put similar images based upon graphic contexts, such as figural cement or gesture, in opposition. But design component is only one level of Williams’ artistry. Within all his images there flourishes an eloquence of moment and a strong sense of place and time. Like many fine photographers he can put us there to see what people and places look like. For most photographers that is enough. Not for Williams. Beyond just literal elements, the photographs are both compositionally satisfying and abstractly challenging. They call attention equally to the humanity of their subjects and to the disparate feelings that are packaged up within all our life-long experiences. Look into the eyes of the people Williams has brought before you, and you will see the same strength and individuality that appear in Russell Lee's Depression-era farmers and Bruce Davidson's urban dwellers. That is the true beauty that Rick Williams provides us with: that an artistic vision and a human content can build upon and arise above each other.
That the work is generated in the present is at once obvious and generously direct. Williams does not, so far, embrace a heavily manipulated artifice or create fictives before his lens. (Not to say that he won't one day. Those artists as honest as he cannot exclude any possibilities where the heart — that "most fickle of all the muscles" as April Rapier once called it — is concerned.) These are real people and places, recorded and interpreted as he has experienced them. That directness, that sense of the process of witness, that honest attempt to understand, is always at the foundation of the work. The titles of the works may hint at romance or universal mystery, but he gives us the places, dates and names in the same direct manner as the lean and rich images are unfolded before us. It is the day-to-day humanity that remains and perseveres and triumphs, whether the faces are shaded by a worn Stetson, hidden in the shadow of the sun, or shielded by the masks of a clean room.
However, unlike most solid photo-documentary work that surrounds us, the images do not stop there. Within this vision is an unbridled respect for the past — a reference and response not just to what has happened up to the point in time but to what has come before to our people and the land they spring from. We can recognize the today-ness in a work likeRoundup at Sunrise, Matador Ranch, (1982) both from its date or the inclusion of the grace note of the rim-lit pickup truck aimed at the print's edge in anticipation of an exit from the prairie stage.
But the bulk of the composition — land and cowhands, horses and sky — could date from a century earlier; or even — hopefully, immortally — a century from now. It is the sheer timeliness of the photograph, referencing at once the everyday and the universal, that engages us: the discovery and reinforcement that there can be beauty and grace as both men and the sun ease into another day.
What pulls Williams' artistry into a realm beyond mere representation is not just the classical affinity of documentary photography to make the subject "relevant" to us. Rather he has come to resolve the clarity of the photograph's inherent power of presence, so that the imagery will require our relevance to it. The photographs contain a beauty thatsuffuses the seeming simplicity of the most mundane and prosaic elements and elevates them to a higher, universal level
—the "dance" of the cowhand at the corral gate, the gesture of the symphonic conductor in an oilfield worker's signal,
or the butterfly-like flotation of workers on the Advanced Micro Devices fan walk. This is breathtaking beauty, not mere
prettiness, which comes from an affection if not an awe — for the everyday experience of the human animal in all manner
of worldly environments and circumstances.
Photograph by photograph Williams reveals a social panorama shaped by the ritual of the everyday and enriched by the grace of living that infuses it. The portrait that emerges is far more than that of three different lifestyles covering the last two decades of the previous century. At its finest the entire body of work serves as a testament to the vibrant spirituality that can exist far beyond earning a paycheck. As Russell Lee — the spiritual father of so many of us who passed through his days here in Austin — once put it: "Photography only succeeds if you are willing to work at it. The same thing goes for life too."
In terms of the literature of the state, Larry McMurtry observed such moments as those Williams has witnessed. He points out that these "images, as it happens, all come from Old Texas, but it would not be hard to find in today's experience, or tomorrow's, moments that are just as eloquent, just as suggestive of gallantry or strength or disappointment. ... Texas is rich in unredeemed dreams, and now that the dust of its herds is settling the writers will be out on their pencils, looking for them in the suburbs and along the mythical Pecos."
Williams rides these same trails. Indeed, the only qualification to add here is that it is equally the domain of artists and photographers as well — if not even more so. Poetry has less to do with choosing the right word or moment and a whole lot more with intuiting and understanding the human. And Rick Williams' quest through this dimension is and must be forever ceaseless — as are his passions, his dreams, and his admiration of our immortal spirit.
If you detect a commonality here — of purpose, of ideal, of an almost soulful quality — that is no coincidence. (Indeed, one of Williams' working titles for an earlier stage of this opus was Common Ground.) To possess a poetic vision is at once challenging and elating, but most especially when one is dealing with the everyday rather than the singularly epic. And it is within these moments of the experience of the common man and woman that Williams' photographs find transcendence. The instances encompass all our daily lives — elation, frustration, communication, industry, contemplation, achievement, loss, belief, faith — and elevate our labors and our energies to the heroic, which we may not recognize at all times but which we all share before each day's sunset.
That is the challenge, both for the modern artist and for the working man: to combine the prosaic of the everyday with the poetry of which life is capable. Williams assembles it photograph by photograph and word by word. But we all, each and every one, do it every day and in every place: side by side, heart to heart, dream to dream. Or, if you will, hand to hand. •