Willy Bearden

Memphis Magazine cover story

(First in a series of profiles of Memphis-area photographers)

April 2014

Willy Bearden: Images from one of Memphis’ best-known filmmakers

In the lobby of Willy Bearden’s rambling studio downtown, across from the elementary school and in the shadow of the abandoned Sterick Building, is an array of vintage cameras — a dual lens Konica and slim Pentax on a tripod, a Nikon SLR that died an untimely death in the sand and surf during one of its many trips to Horn Island off the coast of Mississippi. But you also might find a vinyl blues album, a slim volume of Eudora Welty, and an early model television. Bearden is a collector who throws nothing out, not props, not ideas, not outdated equipment.

And certainly not photographs.

To sit in front of his large-screen Apple monitor as he flips from folder to folder on the desktop is to take a virtual trip to Paris and Amsterdam, to the Gulf Coast and South Memphis. You will certainly be spending some time in the Mississippi Delta. Bearden grew up in its red fields overgrown with green kudzu, three hours south of Memphis in Rolling Fork, seat of Sharkey County. He arrived in Memphis in 1971, at the age of 21, the only way a Delta child of the 1960s (or a bluesman of the 1930s) might: He hitchhiked.

Bearden’s thinning white hair and glasses may hint towards his six decades, but the fervor heard in his voice as he discusses his passion negates those years and the triple-bypass surgery he underwent (in India, of all places) several years ago. There is something of the child in his eyes, too, as there must have been that day in Rolling Fork when a neighbor let him borrow a Polaroid Land camera for the very first time.

“I didn’t call it ‘documenting my world,’ but I was always interested in just the snapshots, just taking the pictures, and I tried to do some creative things when I was a teenager,” he says. “I remember specifically [the neighbor] had one of those gazing globes in his yard and I was fascinated with that thing. I took some pictures of that with the Polaroid.

“I think once you look through a viewfinder, a lot of people get hooked. You look through there and you say, ‘Whatever is in the frame is the only thing that matters to me at this point.’ The extraneous clutter of the world doesn’t matter. I’m focusing on this gazing globe, or I’m focusing on this person’s face.”

His passion for the visual developed early when George Larrimore, a friend working as a producer at Channel 5, asked him to work on a film project.
“I was just there to carry stuff around, and I looked through this Canon Scoopic, which was a 16 mm motion picture camera,” he says, “and it had a zoom lens and, man, I looked through that thing; I don’t think I took that thing away from my eye for the next two hours.”

At the time, Bearden was working for Motion Picture Laboratories, a business that delivered film reels to theatres all around the South, and employed many area photographers. The break room there became like a college classroom for him and he would ask those “professors” question after question about the technical aspects of the art. He soaked up hard information from wherever he could read about it and whoever was willing to talk about it . . . (read more)