He may not be a household name, but for more than three decades his work appeared in almost half the households in Memphis. As a photographer for The Commercial Appeal from 1949 to 1982, Bob Williams captured many of the biggest events and celebrities of the day, and a selection of those photographs and the equipment he used will be on display at Memphis Heritage from April 23rd through May 29th.
"Bob Williams' Passion for All Things Photography" describes him as a "daredevil, investigator, collector, and press photographer," and Williams is a bit embarrassed by some of those descriptions. "'Devil' would be more like it," he says, laughing. "But I certainly found myself in some interesting places, that's for sure. One time I climbed up into the very top of Halliburton Tower at Rhodes College to shoot them installing the new bell there, and the people way down below looked like ants."
And what about his role as "investigator"? Williams tells about the time he looked into a little-known business — speedometer repair shops in Memphis — and discovered that they "fixed" the gauges by turning the mileage back for local used-car dealers. The story got picked up by the Associated Press and ultimately resulted in national laws forbidding the practice.
In his long career, Williams photographed sports greats such as Arnold Palmer and politicians such as Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Johnson. (That's Williams shown taking Johnson's picture.) One of the photos in the exhibit is of a considerably humbler subject: his son, lying on the floor and playing with a puppy. "That's one of my favorites," Williams says. "I've always liked human-interest photos. You don't have hot news every day, so I would always be on the search for photos that would be entertaining, because people really like those. It paid off, and I got a name for doing that type of work."
The exhibit also features vintage camera equipment, from the old box cameras of the early 1900s to the Speed Graphics of the 1950s and the Nikons of the '60s.
"Bob Williams' Passion for All Things Photography" at Memphis Heritage, 2282 Madison, April 23rd to May 29th. opening reception: Thursday, April 23rd, 5 to 7 p.m.