WILLIAMS AWARDED GUGGENHEIM FELLOWSHIP
Haverford's curator of photography and chair of the fine arts department, William Williams, has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to complete his photographic record of Civil War battlefields and historic sites where African Americans played an important role. Williams is one of only four photographers among the 184 artists, scholars and scientists selected from over 3,200 applications for this year's fellowships.
Williams' interest in creating a photographic documentation of the contributions of black soldiers during the Civil War stemmed from his photography project of Gettysburg's memorial park. Begun in 1986 and completed in 1996, this series of photographs taken with large-format cameras was later published in a book titled, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time.“As I photographed the park over the years in different seasons, the significance of this historical landscape began to clarify itself for me as an idea and as a series of photographs,” he explains.
The experience also made him acutely aware that many Civil War battlefields and historic sites are in constant jeopardy of being lost, particularly many of the 449 sites where black soldiers fought and died. One example, says Williams, is in the Port Hudson, Louisiana, area near the Mississippi River, which is considered one of the best preserved Civil War commemorative areas.“It was also where black troops first demonstrated their fighting ability in a large Civil War battle,” explains Williams.“But the portion of the site where black troops fought rests outside of the park boundaries on private land, unprotected and almost impossible to visit.”
Williams became aware of other sites that are also in danger of being lost as a result of property sales, lack of any formal historical designations or, in one case, flooding.“Fort Wagner,” notes Williams,“was the scene of a massive battle involving black soldiers. It's underwater today as a result of construction by the Army Corps of Engineers.
â€œHistoric sites such as these deserve to be preserved just as much as Gettysburg,” says Williams.
In addition to the lack of care for the battle sites themselves, Williams believes little acknowledgement has been given to the contributions of black Civil War soldiers.“The Robert Gould Shaw 54th Massachusetts Monument on Boston Common is the best known and until recently, one of the few memorials dedicated to black Civil War soldiers,” says Williams.“But, it wasn't until 1989 that the black members of the 54th were inscribed on the back of the monument.”
Williams plans to continue the work he began at Gettysburg by locating and photographing these neglected sites.“It has been a profound experience to work and use history as a starting point for creative work which is both documentary and interpretative,” he says.” My goal is to transform these killing fields into spaces of contemplation, reflection, and remembrance through still photography, and to refute the notion that blacks were given their rights after the Civil War without having fought and won them.”
Williams' work has received support from a number of prestigious organizations including the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and the Pew Foundation Fellowships in the Arts program. In 1993, the Pennsylvania Convention Center commissioned four photographs of the Gettysburg National Military Park from Williams for the Center's permanent collection. His work from these projects and his earlier subjects is part of a number of museum collections around the country, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Baltimore Museum, and the permanent collections of several colleges and universities.
A graduate of Hamilton College and Yale University, Williams has exhibited in dozens of one-man, two-person and group shows throughout his career. He is an expert on the photography of Walker Evans and has lectured widely on the interpretations of Evans' photographs of vernacular architecture and other quintessential American subjects.
At Haverford, Williams teaches courses on the technical and creative aspects of photography. In 1979, the year following his appointment to Haverford's fine arts faculty, he founded the College's photography collection and continues to serve as its curator. The 3,000 photographs in the collection represent the history of the medium from its beginnings in 1839 to the present.