William Carter - Discovering the World and Ourselves

June 8, 2020
Laura Wilsey
Esther Wan

This is a guest blog post by Esther Wan, who is working on various projects for Special Collections including the descriptive metadata for the William Carter Photographs. Esther was previously at Stanford News Service Library and has also worked for libraries in Canada, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. She now enjoys the views of San Francisco from her windows.

American photographer William Carter’s collection of digitized photographs was my first project for Special Collections and having just joined the team at the end of February, I soon found myself sheltered-in-place by mid-March and working from home. Despite the shrinking of my physical world, Carter’s images enabled me to continue exploring far-away places and times past - a fortuitous experience as one who now finds everyday life sometimes more strange than visually traveling through parts unknown.

Spanning a career from the 1950s until the 2000s, Stanford alum (1957) William Carter’s work and travels gave him access to diverse subjects and places and enabled him to document not only specific moments in time but also broad themes common to all cultures. Concepts such as friendship, spirituality, and survival, and human expressions found in curiosity, pride and tenderness can be seen in his imagery - caught from observing people just going about their daily lives or while waiting for those glimpses of quiet vulnerability.

His early works came from assignments that included the New York Times, Trans World Airlines, and Women’s World Daily and spanned far-flung places such as New York, London, Egypt and Yemen in the early to mid-1960s. Photos of celebrities, farmers, children in play and work, street life in villages and cities abound from these travels. Carter’s career-making moment as a photojournalist was established during his journey with Kurdish Peshmerga guerrilla soldiers in northern Iraq while on assignment for Life Magazine in 1965 and yielded a 6-page spread and imagery of a Kurdistan and its peoples still unknown to many. Later, he became involved with longer-term book projects for Sunset Publishing and his portrait close-ups and landscapes of California and the American Midwest of the late 1960s and 1970s resulted from these ventures. William Carter’s personal interests in jazz and blues music, spirituality, and fine art also led to subjects ranging from master musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Manny Sayles and De De Pierce to Tibetan monks and Indian peoples, and abstract landscape and nude photography.


Researching and creating metadata for William Carter’s digitized photographs across such diverse geography and time without the ability to directly consult his film negatives and prints required some creative thinking. First-hand sources such as Carter’s 2011 book “Causes and Spirits”, his blog, video interviews with Tony di Gesu and Dawn Hope Stevens and tapings of his book launch at Kepler’s Books enabled me to identify some images. When these avenues fell short, other institutions’ digital photographic collections - such as those from the J. Paul Getty Museum, SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art - were also helpful. Occasionally, Carter’s image names provided clues as in the cases of his step-grandson’s portraits and that of the 6th Marquess of Bath. While in other instances, elements in the photos themselves gave chase down various ‘rabbit holes’ such as the name of a Royal Canadian naval destroyer on a sailor’s cap, seeing Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at a gala premiere, or identifying legendary Illinois football coach Bob Reade during a team practice. As one who enjoys “finding things”, it was immensely satisfying for me to be able to establish connections between seemingly disparate images and to locate details needed to accurately document this collection.

Viewing William Carter’s photographs, one is often left with a haunted feeling of times and places that no longer exist - and yet also the temerity of the human spirit to survive and flourish. At this moment when our worlds are in uncharted territory due to pandemic and unrest and we have been asked to re-examine our own human frailties and strengths, there is much to be found in William Carter’s imagery for reflection and inspiration. The digital images are projected to be accessioned into the SDR and made available via the SearchWorks record for viewing by the end of June.