Willy Bearden is a local filmmaker best known for works such as his 2010 feature “One Came Home” and the Memphis Memoirs series on WKNO-TV.
He produced the video exhibitions for the Cotton Museum and has produced the New Year’s Eve telecast from Beale Street as well as the Blues Music Awards for the Blues Foundation.
The bearded and bespectacled Bearden is a renaissance man with a down-home flair whose talents extend far beyond any single medium.
“I’m a filmmaker, a writer and a storyteller, and I think all of these things are connected, at least as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I couldn’t be a filmmaker if I weren’t a writer, and I couldn’t be a filmmaker if I didn’t know photography.”
And it’s his photography that will be in the spotlight during an opening reception Friday, March 29, at 6 p.m. at the Leadership Memphis Gallery 363 (365 S. Main St.) during the South Main Art Trolley Tour.
For the show, Bearden culled 10 years of photographs for the 20 or so to be edited, printed and framed.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into it,” Bearden said. “I’ve had a good time going through and choosing things, it’s been interesting to kind of walk back through the thousands of things I’ve shot.”
Ken Hall has partnered with Michel Allen in Allen Projects, a gallery and consulting firm, to curate shows for Leadership Memphis. The Bearden photography installation marks one year for such shows.
Hall has known Bearden for several years and was familiar with his video and production work, but when he saw the still photography for the first time, he wanted to showcase it to the public.
“I was just mesmerized by his great work in still photography,” Hall said. “So immediately – I think the next day – I called him for an exhibition at Gallery 363.”
Bearden, a Rolling Fork, Miss., native, spends a lot of time in the Delta and his photography represents this.
In the show are images of churches, including Elvis Presley’s church as a boy in Tupelo, wide-open shots of golden fields below blue skies and the folk art of the Rev. H.D. Dennis of Vicksburg. Bearden has traveled to Horn Island, Miss., for the Memphis College of Art workshop numerous times and those trips will be represented as well.
Bearden developed an interest in photography while working at Motion Picture Laboratories in the late 1970s. He studied photographs, photography magazines and he used to “ask a million questions,” he said. “Those very wonderful, patient people would answer my questions.”
He is self-taught for the most part, taking note of how people were telling stories with their photography and of the mistakes others were making in their work. He read anything he could find on the subject, and his first camera had no light meter, intentionally, so that he had to learn exposure and optics.
“Luckily I was around a lot of really intelligent people who took time with me, and I’ve had so many mentors in my life, people like Murray Riss, who talked to me about these things, and the importance of these things,” he said.
Bearden’s early education and his ongoing work have all been driven by a seemingly insatiable curiosity. At 62, he continues to take copious amounts of photos and laughs as he talks of a recent trip home from Rolling Fork, a three-hour drive, in which he stopped four times to capture sights he found interesting.
He goes to the movies every weekend, he says, “fascinated with how people put words and images together, and mix music and tell a story that we’ve never heard before.”
Through his Legacy Project for the Memphis & Shelby County Public Library, he has donated his time and more than 7,500 photographs so far of things that might seem ordinary today – a perspective of Union Avenue or details of the houses in Victorian Village – but in 50 years researchers and storytellers will be able to access these images free of charge to learn what life was like in the early 21st century.
“Pretty much anything that documents history, Willy does well,” Hall said.
Still amazed and grateful for the success of his last film, Bearden is currently writing a new screenplay with the working title “Distance” and hopes to begin production this fall. As with everything else, he is immersed in the story and calling upon his past experiences for the new project.
“We’re going to take all the things we did right with ‘One Came Home’ and build on that,” he said.
In talking with Bearden, one doesn’t get the sense that anything he’s decided to excel at – whether still photography or filmmaking – has been work for him, such is the excitement in his voice over the project at hand.
“I still have this fascination and this enthusiasm for all of these things,” he said, “and I still feel like I’m learning every day.”