DENTON (CBS 11 NEWS) – In the archives of UNT’s library, shelf after shelf is piled high with boxes of photographs. Some are very large. Others are small snapshots. These massive stacks of boxes contain a window through time: Tens of thousands of photographs spanning more than a century all taken by the same family.
“It’s a huge collection,” said Morgan Giergenger who is head of special collections for UNT. “It contains about 300,000 unique images spanning all four generations of photographers.”
Byrd Williams shot pictures for his postcard business in the 1890’s. Then there was Byrd Williams Junior who was an engineer and photographed a lot of structures. And then Byrd the Third actually owned a camera shop. And Byrd IV works as a professional photographer today.
“All of us shot professional, but also shot personal,” Byrd Williams IV said. “Back in those days you didn’t call yourself an art photographer or artists. You were just making pictures in neighborhoods.”
But those pictures froze time as each Byrd saw it.
“A good example, even the snapshots,” Williams said as he laid down old photos on the table. “There’s The Alamo in the 1890’s. Here’s The Alamo in 1930’s. I’ve got one from the 70’s.”
There are photos of people in their workplace. One shows operators with headsets on a board to patch in calls in front of them. Another men on the back of a Hire’s Root Beer wagon being pulled by horses with an old saloon behind them. Other pictures show hunters on the open plains with rifles, people attending a movie with men wearing hats and old cars parked in the street and buildings which now are either dwarfed by newer structures on gone entirely.
“The images themselves are so neatly composed and artistically done,” Gierenger said. But they also document a place and a time that is worth remembering.
“People studying architecture are going to have documented architectural landmarks — some of which don’t exist anymore. Any way you look at it, this collection is priceless.”
To say the collection is vast might be an understatement. Until he donated it to the university, the boxes consumed a third of Williams’ home.
“I always had it around me,” Williams said. “I rifled through it every night and i still haven’t looked at it all.”
But Williams said as he approached 60 years old he realized the collection needed to be preserved for posterity.
“Photography was just sort of a surrogate afterlife,” . We weren’t necessarily religious, just, it was how we communicate with the future. And if I’m going to be true to that it needed to be in a safe place for others to study.”
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