As a lifelong shutterbug and longtime professor of photography at Tarrant County College, Patricia Richards thought she’d pretty much seen — or captured — it all.
Teaching her Photo 101 class, she’d worked with her share of older students. So when now 83-year-old Bill Coleman showed up in the front row on the first day of class in 2004, he didn’t really raise any eyebrows. Sure, he was six decades older than most of his classmates. And she had seen Bill before, when he had visited the university, exploring other photography classes. “He just came in, sat down, and smiled politely when I talked about the basics of photography,” she recalls.
It wasn’t until after the class was over that she had the first clue that Bill was no ordinary returning student. “He walked up and introduced himself, then said he had already taken all the photos he wanted to,” Patricia relates. “Then he said something I’ll never forget: ‘I only have about 1,000 negatives that I took when I was stationed in Italy that I’ve never printed from World War II. I want to learn the best way to print them.’ My jaw dropped, and I just said, ‘Absolutely, please come in.’”
Having Coleman, who has lived in Euless since 1984, sign up for that class three years ago was, she believes, a bit like winning the lottery. “How often do you get to talk to anybody who was there for the Great Conflict?” she asks. “And, then, there was the fact that he hadn’t even seen the photos himself.” Before long, Patricia and Bill had become fast friends — Patricia sharing her technical knowledge of photography and the printing process and Bill sharing his photos, his story, and his unique outlook on pictures, life and the Great War.
First, there was the matter of the Bill’s WW II-era negatives. At least 1,000 of them, originally developed as they were taken, then carefully placed into glassine sleeves and tucked into two boxes, waiting until Bill, an eye doctor and father of two, could eventually learn to print them. By Bill’s estimation, he had only printed 65 or so of his photographs at the end of the war. Beyond that, his body of work languished in his attic — but was “engraved in my mind.”
“I shot the photos everywhere along the way where I was stationed in Italy,” explains Bill, an optometrist who served as a staff sergeant in the 12th Medical Supply Depot. The 12th was attached to the 5th Army under the command of Gen. Mark Clark — an assemblage that trained in North Africa and waded ashore at Salerno, Italy in the fall of 1943. Bill’s unit, comprised of medics, followed the troops — and the photography enthusiast immediately bought a new Leica 35-mm rangefinder camera and began taking pictures in Italian towns stretching from Naples to Florence to Pisa, devotedly documenting his tour of duty.
“I didn’t have the money — and we didn’t have the paper — to print them back then, so I developed them and then I kept them in two boxes — one cardboard, one wood,” he explains. “Whenever we moved, I grabbed them first and made sure they didn’t get left behind. I always knew I was going to print them one day – and when I did, I’d have so many memories.”
Memories, indeed. As Bill would swish photographic paper through developing fluid under Patricia’s watchful eye, a long-dormant image would slowly emerge — and, with it, his recollection of the faces and buildings and stories he was so careful to capture long ago. “They turned out wonderful — wonderful,” he enthuses. “They’re keeping me young. Every time I print a new one, I can remember exactly what my thoughts were, and can see in my mind’s eye exactly what I was photographing back then.”
“Refresh” may be a better word than remember, given that Bill, who attended UC Berkeley on a golf scholarship, remembers the vast majority of the 600 or so photos he’s printed from his cache thus far. “Most of them are engraved on my memory,” he asserts, smiling. “There’s very few that I don’t remember.” His most memorable? “I recall so distinctly taking a photo of a soldier standing upright on a tank. I’ve thought about that soldier many times over the years.”
Aside from the soldier, what was Bill shooting back then? “Everything,” he asserts. “Literally everything. If it was possible to photograph it, I did it, without much thought as to where it was going to end up. I just wanted to record the things I saw, and I really didn’t realize my photos were history.” He pauses for a minute, then corrects himself. “Well, I say ‘everything,’ but that’s really not true. I occasionally had a chance to photograph death, but I never did that. I saw my share of death. I wasn’t interested in dead people. A lot of military photographers worked like dogs, taking pictures of dead people. I worked in a morgue at one point. I wanted to capture life.”
Take a look at Bill’s photographs — and you can throughout the summer at Hunky’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers at 321 N. Bishop in the Bishop Arts District — and you soon realize that they do, indeed, comprise a remarkable visual history of life during wartime Italy from 1943-1945. Setting history aside, though, the photographs stand alone as striking works of art. “They’re remarkable,” Patricia marvels. “Exceptional. He has a real gift for composition.”
It’s a gift that, after the war, Bill saved largely for the family album. “When we got home after the war, everyone was just so glad to be home and to have survived,” he said. “I was an optometrist, so I worked, I raised a family. I was busy. I just saved the negatives for later.”
Bill proved to be a patient caretaker of this invaluable photographic legacy. “I always said that I’d know when it was time to get them printed and, a few years back, I knew it was time,” he explains. What’s surprised him has been the level of excitement and interest his photographs have generated. “I printed them for my own curiosity, and I didn’t think that anybody would be interested. I love showing them to people, though. I hope everybody can look at them.”
Bill’s first — and some of his more loyal — fans came from his Photo 101 class. “The kids just love him,” Patricia reports. “He’s got such a great attitude, and he has so many stories to tell! When he would bring prints up, the kids would just gather around. When it was time to share work at the end of class, nobody would leave before Bill showed his pictures.” Ben McDonald, an 18-year-old Arlington freshman who attended the opening of Bill’s show at Hunky’s, gives Bill’s work an enthusiastic thumbs up. “Watching him in the darkroom was amazing,” Ben says. “It’s incredible how he can still make the frame.”
Patricia echoes her student’s enthusiasm for sharing a darkroom with Bill. “It’s fantastic!” she says. “Sometimes we print together and, when he’s printing, he gets so excited,” she says. “As the picture begins to appear on the paper, he’ll stand there and say, ‘Oh, boy! Oh, boy!’ It’s just this amazing revelation. With just about every picture, he’ll say, ‘This is my favorite…no. no, wait a minute, wait a minute…this is my favorite.’”
As shot after shot emerged from the darkroom, Patricia knew Bill’s work was something special. “After I saw the work taking shape, I just ardently believed the work needed to be seen,” she explains. “I started setting things up.” In 2004, Bill mounted his first exhibit at Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus. The next year, Patricia urged Bill to accompany her on one of her student trips to Italy she arranges annually. “He went with us in 2005, and it was his first trip back,” she said. “He told me it was worth waiting for.”
While there, Patricia helped Bill mount an exhibition of his work in Prato, Italy, in a library at Montagu University near where he was stationed so many decades ago. “Bill had a ball. Many people who had been children at the time of the war came to see the photos,” she reports. “The show stayed up through the summer, and it was a big hit.” The Dallas Public Library also displayed some of Bill’s photographs a year or so ago.
His photographic success is, clearly, all the more remarkable, given how late in life Bill is printing — and achieving recognition for — photos shot so long ago. “I’m just having so much fun with this,” he confesses. So, will more exhibitions or a coffee-table book follow? “Who knows?” he says with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. “I don’t know. I’m too old to plan. I’m 83, so I don’t have too far to go. I’m living hour by hour these days.”
Patricia seconds his emotion. “He’s 83 now, and he’s having this great moment in his life,” she says. “What could be better? What could be better?”