W.D. Smith’s Photography — Finding from Buchanan Antiques Market

Gordon Smith's Gold Award Photograph from 1955 Exhibition

I first have to apologize that in a previous post we reported our first visit to the Buchanan Antiques Market, which we just found out was actually Continental Show on the same weekend. We learned this from our yesterday’s visit to the real Buchanan Market, a monthly event held in either the Market Hall or the Fair Park of Dallas.

We were at first dubious at the cashier as the show seemed to offer anything from antiques, collectible or just stuff you see in a typical flea market. But we warmed up quickly by spotting some interesting items: some stereoview cards of Pittsburgh steel mills (yes, hell without a lid off in 3D), a group of paintings by Jesse Rasberry and some B&W photos taken by unknown persons.

The most fascinating stop is at a booth with some early Fort Worth photographs from W.D. Smith estate. Thanks to smart phone technology, we could learn onsite from both looking at the real photos and search information from the internet on the fly.

W.D.Smith opened city’s first commercial photograph studio in Fort Worth in 1927  and with his son Gordon Smith, made numerous commercial photographs.  When viewed individually, these photos are mostly strictly objective, as the article in UTA website mentioned that Mr. Smith possessed a rare ability to keep a correct vertical perspective when capturing the image of tall buildings, thus making perfect pictorial documents of architecture. However, when the collection of 190,000 negatives of Fort Worth and North Texas photos, spanning more than seven decades (most of them are now housed in University of Texas at Arlington where Gordon went for college) are to be viewed collectively, the physical evidence of the past becomes sentimental and nostalgic.

Rebuilt Carburetor by W. D. Smith

My pursuit of picturesque Texas has so far been futile in the DFW region, as one of my colleagues from Princeton NJ once commented: People come here not for the sake of landscape. Nor would I expect a spectacular collection of architectural gems or decorative art from Fort Worth (Henry du Pont would probably simply take no notice of furniture making here as the city was only established in the 1840’s), but just like important historical cities in the Northeast, the city has gone rapid changes before the notion of historical preservation began to examine the remaining architectural integrity. Any piece of document of city’s past that would otherwise only exist in memory, even though merely half a century ago, becomes interesting to behold and perhaps to collect. In the word of Mayor of Grapevine, Texas (which has even a longer history than Fort Worth), ““Millions of stories are gone forever, but it is not too late to capture what remains.”

Such is the case of Carnegie Library of Fort Worth. Fort Worth, which did not previously have a public library, received a Carnegie grant of $50,000 on June 30, 1899. The library with its granite columns and neo-classical facade, opened in 1901, but only to be demolished in 1937 for its lack of space. Smith’s photo of the long-gone library is not sentimental, but it is a testament against foresighted urban-planning. The new library, on the site of the original library, was opened two years later in 1939, and was also replaced, by another central library building in 1970’s, which is still in-use today. Ironically, its design is in resemblance of the original Carnegie Library.

I have always thought the negative film is more collectible than the actual proof until I saw three examples offered in the market. All three are non-typical pictorial photos that UTA is currently holding. In fact, they are the actual pieces entered for some photograph exhibitions of the 40’s and 50’s.  The dealer told me these photos are directly from Smith’s estate, perhaps indicating that the family had held them with intimacy.

One of three photos is titled “Curve” by Gordon Smith, with not only Smith Photographs label on the back, but also the Gold Award label from 28th Annual Convention of Southwestern Photographer’s Association in 1955. I have not found the exact location of this hall interior, but would guess it may be the original Charlie Mary Noble Planetarium interior which was completed within one year before the photo was taken. Although I have never been to Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, a quick search showed a recent upgrade on the building, indicating that maybe this is another photograph of the past.

The second one by his father W.D. Smith was the exhibition piece for 1948 Photographer’s Association of America Convention. Here Smith took an interest in the area that he had been familiar with and was known for but re-invented as a new concept. “Rebuilt Carburetor” is making both an aesthetic and a philosophical statement. The texture, tonality and forms of this complicated device is intriguingly beautiful, something we overlook and have been overlooking. We drive the car to Yosemite or Yellowstone, yet would never thought of the oily, clumsy and noisy engine contains anything eye-soothing. By bringing up a close-up, near pornographic-style shot of a carburetor, thing that we use daily without even a single look, Smith pushed us to examine, beyond its functionality, what a mechanic device is with respect to its shape, volume and its integral visual impact.

On the other hand, Smith Photograph Company had been doing commercial photography for all kinds of business: refinery, trains, car dealership, or construction. Here instead of taking in a brand name that we would associate with certain type of commercialism, he selected a rebuilt carburetor. It functions the same  as a brand  new one and would potentially fit in certain engine. But when a rebuilt carburetor is placed on a piece of white foam board with delicate lighting, how do we perceive it differently as fine art instead of commercial art? Geo commented there is certain kind of momentum in it even though it is a still life snapshot. That is quite a statement.

Engraver by W. D. Smith

The last of the three is a photo of an engraver at work. The overall dark tone has a humane warmth that connects the viewer with the engraver who paid no attention to the outside world. His right arm is slightly out of focus, perhaps because of the movement, yet his gesture has a definite monumentality that draws the viewer into his mind and action.

I saw the image as a reinforced notion of the lost artisanship and an elegy of our waning determination of utilizing one’s skill, intuition and fortitude in pursuit of precision and perfection against all unforseen odds. Except in the small artistic field, both engraving and B&W film photography have been abandoned nowadays. The workmanship acquired in year-long apprenticeship has given in to fast-food types of techniques based on computer software that are easier to hone and more fault-tolerant. That reminds me of the recent news that Kodak has stopped making Kodachrome. The famed photographer Steve McCurry commented in the end, “Imagine leaving digital images in a hard drive and coming back 40 years later. Would anybody be able to read that data? That’s the great thing about film. It’s a self-contained object. You hold the picture up to the light and there it is.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

2 comments

The photo referred to as “curve” in this article is in fact the old entry way ramp and atrium to the Noble Planetarium before they tore the who museum down in 2007 and rebuilt it (along with a new Noble Planetarium) and reopened it in 2009. The compass shown inlayed in the floor was retained and now is in the foyer entrance of the main museum. Another shot of this old entrance can be seen with society members on the ramp on the main webpage of the Fort Worth Astronomical Society (which Charlie Mary Noble founded in 1949). The planets were probably added later than when your photo was taken, they lined the wall (seen on the FWAS website photo) on the right as you walked up the ramp to the planetarium dome.

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