Hollywood actor Owen Wilson has in his home "a great picture that my mom took of Donald Judd. He's a great artist, and it's in Marfa. It may have been one of the last photographs of him that was taken before he passed away."
Owen pauses and says, "I think of her as my mom, and my mom is an artist." The picture of Judd "is an artist taking a picture of an artist. Maybe that's why she's able to get such good photographs. She has the eye of an artist."
Indeed she does. Laura Wilson's lavish new book is That Day: Pictures in the American West. It is 231 pages of stunning images, which include mostly black-and-white portraits of fighter pilots, lion hunters, six-man high school football players, Hutterites and other images of the American West.
She explores dogfighting and cockfighting, debutantes, border issues, Lambshead Ranch in West Texas and the isolation and poverty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Her portraits of memorable faces include those of singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, actor Harry Dean Stanton, playwright Sam Shepard and an artist-photographer who influenced her own work, the great Richard Avedon.
In addition to the book, Wilson will open on Saturday her second major exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, where "That Day: Laura Wilson" will showcase 74 photographs. As with many born during World War II, Wilson grew up watching Western movies and reading the cowboy literature of America's wild West.
"There is the myth and the romantic West, which are, of course, deep within me, growing up as I did in the 1950s," she says. "I was very interested in the painting and the architecture of the West. I like the open space. I like everything about it."
She hails from "a little country town" in Massachusetts, "so I like country people. I'm familiar with country people. I've just always liked the West. There are certain topographies that are within your soul. It happens to be for me that it's the West. It still thrills me to see a vast expanse of land with the sky coming right down to the horizon line."
Wilson's book evolved from a conversation she shared with Andrew R. Graybill on a chilly night in 2011. Graybill is director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. The Clements Center is co-publishing the book with the Yale University Press.
In the foreword, Graybill writes that one of Wilson's photographs, taken at a debutante ball in Laredo, "was emblematic of her larger body of work, showing us a West that is unfamiliar and riddled with paradoxes." For instance, he writes, "if the Colonial Ball was intended to symbolize the relative racial accommodation governing Laredo, what should we make of the juxtaposition between the blonde girl at the center of the image and her two Mexican assistants?"
He raves about her photographs of the Hutterites of Montana, who, like their "spiritual cousins," the Amish and the Mennonites, "have forsworn the trappings and conveniences of the modern world (including photography), only to find themselves increasingly ensnared by them."
Like a good reporter, Wilson wasn't shy about delving into scary, troubled regions, such as the Rio Grande area near Laredo, where a corpse floated face down in the water. Though she finds the land of the West endlessly intriguing, she focused primarily and steadfastly on the characters that inhabit it.
"I feel very lucky to have known the people in this book," she says. "Some are very well known, and some are completely unknown. All were interesting, and I was curious about the lives of each of them. How lucky to have been exposed to a Navajo trader who lived all his life by the edge of the San Juan River or to have had the opportunity to cross over into Mexico on the Arizona border and go into Chihuahua and see the lives of people who are crossing back and forth or tracking mountain lions."
Wilson is the mother of three boys, all actors. Andrew is 51, Owen is 46, and Luke, to whom the latest book is dedicated, is 43.
Family friend Mike Ritchey, a star reporter on Newsroom, the landmark local news program launched on KERA-TV (Channel 13) in 1970 by Wilson's husband, then station executive Robert A. "Bob" Wilson, calls her "an extremely talented person ... the Georgia O'Keeffe of photography."
Much of her best work is portraiture, about which Wilson shares a secret: "I always want the person looking at the camera."
Her study of the West includes not only an arresting array of portraits but also sociological studies that she hopes "go beyond the myth of John Wayne and Gary Cooper and address critical issues like alcoholism, poverty and unemployment." She hopes her photographs offer a window into the problems that bedevil the U.S.-Mexico border. "We can't turn our backs on them," she says of those seeking a better life.
She's mesmerized by the Hutterites, calling them "very successful" farmers and ranchers "because they have kept things at bay. They have kept their communities together through a strong spiritual life, a strong family life and substantive, meaningful work. Those three things are very important for the health of anyone, and that's not true on many Native American reservations" or in other "poor parts of the American West."
The American news media is not exactly focused on the problems in such regions, where, Wilson says, "poverty does terrible things to people."
She marvels at the fact that the fastest-growing cities in the United States are found in the West. She's right: A recent study by Yahoo found that, of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the country, only one, Doral, Fla., is east of the Mississippi River.
She values the bond she seeks to establish with those she photographs. "I am very respectful of them," she says. "I am very interested in them, and they respond to that. I wasn't going in quickly and out quickly to grab a photograph. I was going back year after year, month after month."
She prefers taking pictures "the old-fashioned way," in black and white, using a darkroom, though some of the pictures in the book are in color. When you remove color from an image, "there's an elemental quality to it," she says. "For instance, in a portrait, you're really seeing as much as you can see in the mood or the feeling of a person. Color is often a distraction. There is a beauty to color which may distract from the intent or the purpose of the photograph."
As much as she loves the American West, Wilson is hard at work on her next book, which will offer portraits of the 35 "most important writers in the world." Her work has taken her to London, one of her favorite cities, which is, of course, far removed from the outposts of Nogales and Nebraska. Her subjects include Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Stoppard and Penelope Lively.
Photography has fascinated Wilson since she was a child "of 7 or 8, home sick one day from school. I opened the drawer, and my mother had a pile of family pictures. I put the pictures on the floor. So, that's what my mother looked like before I was born. That's what my father and his brothers looked like before I was born. We even know what Abraham Lincoln looked like."
It may have become, at that moment, her life's calling, one she pursues with a rare passion. She has only one word for it.
"It is," she says, "magic."
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That Day: Pictures in the American West will be released Oct. 13 by Yale University Press ($50).