Most people probably have never heard of William Meriwether, although if they saw his photographs, they might swear they've seen them before. Maybe in an Ansel Adams book. Maybe in an Edward Weston exhibit.
Even in his hometown in Glenwood Springs, Meriwether wasn't well known. He never had a retrospective of his work in a gallery until he was near death. Meriwether lived long enough for the opening party, but he died just afterward of cancer.
His anonymity is a shame, because Meriwether produced an impressive body of work in his lifetime, often in rare platinum prints, which he loved. Late in life, he was reduced to point-and-shoot cameras, which he also loved. For friends, he had produced a simple book of photos and essays culled from 40 years of roaming the West with his eye behind a lens. That book has been reprinted by People's Press, a small publishing house in Woody Creek, Colo., that was created to tell the stories of people like Meriwether.
Called The Museum Collection, part of People's Press' Vision of Photography Series, Meriwether's book intersperses photos with essays. They are the stories behind the images, and more often than not the photographer's meditations on composition.
"Photographs must reveal more than a fragment of life; they must reveal the composer," Meriwether writes in one essay.
As we flip through the pages, Meriwether transports us, not just to a place, though that's true too. But he transports us to his way of seeing. Put a frame around a moment, capture it in black and white, and a photo tells you, look at this, and look at it this way. This matters. Meriwether was obsessed with composition. Piling cumulus clouds above Rio Grande Gorge. Light and shadow on Rancho de Taos Mission. A 1949 truck slowly decomposing by a weathered cabin.
Meriwether's upbringing was as starkly black and white as his photos. His mother lived in Los Angeles. His father was a former trapper, as late as the 1920s, roaming the wilds of the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs. Meriwether went back and forth, but he fell in love with the landscapes of the West he first saw from his father's backpack.
He loved the West's rough places, from the rugged back country to small towns clinging on the edge of wilderness. His essays illuminate the thoughts of the artist, as he insisted a photographer should be called. Many of the essays are too clinical for the non-photographically-inclined. With a master's in fine arts, Meriwether was a longtime photography instructor at Colorado Mountain College, and the book can read like a primer.
But The Museum Collection is a worthy tribute to a man who was touched by the West and in just 65 years left his mark on it in his own quiet way. It's a simple book, just 52 pages, much thinner and smaller than most picture books.
"While this book will be comfortable on your coffee table, remember to take it with you, stick it in your camera bag and let it help you to compose your thoughts and images," writes George Stranahan, a friend, fellow photography and founder of People's Press.
When I last interviewed Meriwether just days before his death, he was eager to talk about composition and form and his philosophy of photography. He expected then to still have months of life before him, but he was struggling. His speech was slowed by exhaustion and medication. He was nearly unable to walk and remained connected to an oxygen tank. His legs were inflamed, chapped and bleeding from diabetes.
"Original art has a life of its own, which is not a trite statement," Meriwether told me. "An original work of art will live on in its current form for perhaps tens of thousands of years. It's all I think about. It's the only thing that matters to me. The only thing that matters is when I'm dead and gone, my work is out there enjoying a life of its own and being appreciated for that fact."
Through this book, it will.
David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Follow him at www.davidmfrey.com.
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