William Emmet Davis (1918–2016)

Photographer William Emmett Davis distinguished himself as a commercial photographer for forty years and, beginning in 1983, worked as a fine art photographer. Davis had aesthetic connections with photographers on the West Coast and worked almost exclusively in Arkansas.

William E. Davis was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on October 14, 1918, to E. N. Davis and Mayson Wise Davis; he had no siblings. His father was a physician. Davis attended local schools and then the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). There, he took two years of pre-med courses. The course of study was interrupted when Davis enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. From 1941 to 1945, he was a fighter pilot aboard aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and was awarded Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross. Upon his return from active duty, Davis earned a BS degree in zoology from UA in 1947 and then, with the GI Bill, went to Dallas, Texas, and earned a diploma in photography at the Southwest Photo-Arts Institute.

After returning to Little Rock, Davis apprenticed for two years with Leonard Photographic Service and then set up his own independent business as a commercial photographer. Many of his commercial assignments took Davis to other parts of the state.

Davis married Jody Simon in 1951; they had no children.

From 1950 to 1990, Davis practiced commercial photography. His major accounts included: Georgia Pacific, Middle South Utilities, Siemans, US Gypsum, Carrier, Reynolds Metals, Alcoa, and Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission). Many of his images were published in full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, Time, the New Yorker, Fortune, and other publications. He was the personal photographer for Winthrop Rockefeller for more than twenty years.

Davis’s interest in fine art photography began in 1983. Through his involvement with the Photographers Association of America, Davis, with his friend and fellow portrait photographer Greer Lyle, organized a historic photography workshop in Arkansas with photographer Bob Byers and Richard Garrod. For the next decade, Davis attended this and other workshops given by several West Coast photographers, principally Bob Byers, Richard Garrod, John Sexton, Henry Gilpin, and Howard Bond.

The West Coast aesthetic was defined by photography historian Beaumont Newhall as having its roots in the work of Edward Weston, his son Brett Weston, and in the distinguished work of Ansel Adams—all leading photographers of the twentieth century. This aesthetic involves a medium to large format camera usually mounted on a tripod. Images are of found stationary objects and are carefully isolated through composition or cropping. The photographer usually uses small f stops and long exposures for crisp, sharply focused images, and the final print is rendered in a full modulation of tones from pure whites to deep, rich, velvety blacks. Davis, through his exhibitions and occasional teaching, introduced this aesthetic stance to Arkansas in a simplified way. Davis defines the Classical style as “photography without adulteration: the use of the photographic process to its full capacities with no additional manipulations.”

Davis’s subject matter in Arkansas is very diverse. Many images involve architecture—industrial buildings, machines, grain elevators, cotton gins, barns, churches, and abandoned buildings. Also included are details of doors, windows, siding, hardware, and machinery. Often, Davis would isolate the image to concentrate on small details. Davis developed a two-solution film developer based on a divided D-76 formula and used it almost exclusively; later, Davis’s formula was published in the December 1993 issue of Darkroom Cookbook, and Davis carried on correspondence with other photographers who wanted to experiment with it. Davis’s prints are usually dry-mounted, matted, and signed in pencil, “Wm E. Davis,” in the lower right corner of the mount below the image.

In 1991, Davis published a small book called Simple Pleasures. It included a selection of twenty-eight reproduced images. These were distributed with an order blank, and Davis took orders for prints. Davis published in 2001 a small Portfolio One consisting of fourteen mounted and matted 8″ x 10″ prints of his works. The selection included a ten-year overview of the photographer’s work, mostly including images from Arkansas. The photographer was honored with a one-person, sixty-seven-image exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts) from October 6 through November 26, 2000.

In 2012, Davis published a second small book called Simple Pleasures III, consisting of twenty eight mounted and matted 8″x10″ prints of his work. The selection included a general overview of the photographer’s work, mostly images from his West Coast trips. Davis lived in Little Rock and, later in life, began exploring digital printing, using his existing negatives. He died on February 13, 2016.

For additional information:
Davis, William. Simple Pleasures. Little Rock: 1991.

Du Bois, Alan. “William E. Davis: Photographer.” Exhibition brochure, October 6–November 26, 2000. Little Rock: Arkansas Arts Center, 2000.

Kennedy, Cheryl. “Simple Images.” Active Years (October 2000): 6–9.

Alan Du Bois
Benton, Arkansas


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