It all began one morning as Mark Birnbaum sipped coffee with a friend who’d read about Byrd Williams IV, whose lineage includes a long line of photographers. The friend asked, “Isn’t this the kind of person you make films about?” Birnbaum remembers. Indeed it was.
“I never thought about making a film about photography,” Birnbaum says. “I was just so drawn to that right away.”
Since meeting, and through making Proof, a candid look into Williams’ family heritage while dealing with topics like death, truth and pain, Birnbaum and Williams have become close friends. And Birnbaum says he’s gained a bit of clarity along the way.
Williams, 69, retired a few years ago, but he’d started the photography department at Collin County Community College where he taught and lived his passion, Birnbaum says.
“I came to find out that Byrd isn’t a photographer,” Birnbaum says. “Byrd is a teacher. That’s where he has shown up. That’s where he showed up every day for 30 years. That’s where his real love is and was, and he used photography as an excuse to be there.”
A shared passion for photography connected the two artists. Williams describes the project, which took about three years to complete, as “easygoing.”
“He was just sort of there,” Williams says of Birnbaum’s fly-on-the-wall presence. “He just kind of hung out and he would watch me work and it just fell right into place. I just went about my business and he would show up, ask me questions and go with me to gigs, things like that.”
The documentary was filmed mainly in North Texas, but the two traveled to Connecticut to shoot segments of Williams exploring the raw circumstances surrounding his brother’s death.
The subject of death also arises in a group of photographs Williams says he created mainly for future historians.
“It was kind of a joke, at first,” Williams says of the "Walking Dead" title he dubbed the series of large, black-and-white portraits after realizing one day that everyone pictured had died.
“They had run the course of their lives and there they are,” he says. Everyone will die, eventually, but the title became more concerning with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People I knew did start dying,” he says. “and that took some of the humor out of it.”
Williams says the process he uses with precious metals guarantees that images endure beyond 100 years and up to 400, some say 800. Williams' photographs are so detailed, Birnbaum says, “sometimes, you can see what [people are] thinking.”
One of Williams' former students engages in body suspension. Although he’d photographed many tattoos and piercings, Williams says it’s the first time he’d observed a suspension.
“To my astonishment, people could be experienced in doing this,” Birnbaum says. “And they apparently were. It’s the one sequence in the film that, if anything, people have been upset about or wondered why it was there. I just found it fascinating to observe Byrd observing a process, and how he looked at it, and how he photographed it. And then, his deep concern for this woman who had been his student.
“You couldn’t walk away from that and not have an opinion about it,” he says.
Birnbaum, 72, started working at KERA in the 1970s and worked for various film companies before becoming an independent filmmaker. Although distribution for Proof is still in the works, he says the film was recently accepted into Denton’s Thin Line Fest.
“It was the camera that drew me into this work,” says Birnbaum, adding that one of the most rewarding parts of the project was filming Williams as he worked inside the darkroom.
To “watch a print come up in the developing tray, what Byrd describes as ‘the magic,’ well, it is,” he says. “It is the magic part of photography to watch that print come up in the tray. And it was just a thrill to me to be able to share that with people.”
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