Willie Anne Wright ’45 discovered pinhole photography by chance. Or perhaps it was fate. When she and her late husband, Jack, moved into the Queen Anne-style brick row house in Richmond’s historic Fan District in 1972, she was already an acclaimed artist who had completed a master’s degree in painting and she wanted to learn how to photograph her work.
“Since we moved to this house and it was convenient to Virginia Commonwealth University, I thought I would see if I could take a summer class and learn how to use my new 35 mm camera that my husband had given me for my birthday — never knowing anything about pinhole photography. Never heard of it.”
The first assignment took her by surprise: Make your own camera, using a provided pattern. It was a complex process that took about two weeks.
“Everything had to be put together exactly because you couldn’t have any light leaks and it was a rather involved design,” she says. With that task completed, the class put photo paper in the cameras and went outside. Wright and a partner, Jane Ware, took pictures of each other.
“Then we came back in the darkroom and developed it, and I could not believe it,” she says. “I’ve still got that first one I did. It was just like magic.” The long exposure, perspective, angles and light resulted in images with an unpredictable quality that intrigued her. Wright had been working on a series of paintings based on 19th-century albumen prints of young people on a picnic, but she wasn’t happy with them.
“I tried to capture that feeling of looking backward,” she says. “Everything I had done before was pop art.”
When she saw the wistful image of Ware lying in the grass, head propped up, emerge from the developer, Wright knew she had found a way to realize her ideas. At that time, the trend in painting was large, abstract canvases, while Wright preferred to work on a smaller scale. The old-fashioned photography technique also seemed to fit with her house, built in 1907, and nearby historic sites such as Monument Avenue, Hollywood Cemetery and the Maymont estate.
“This just hit at exactly the time we moved to this house and the time when my daughter was collecting Victorian white dresses,” Wright says. With pinhole photography, “it just felt like a lot of potential there. It was exciting.”
But Wright was doing more than recreating pictures of the past, using old methods. Her subjects included pregnant women with exposed bellies and female friends in bathing suits poolside, or at the beach, as well as still lifes using fruit, flowers, whimsical items such as Hawaiian leis and inflatable toys, and images within images.
“I think that Willie Anne tends to kind of push the boundaries of photography,” says Gordon Stettinius, founder of Candela Books + Gallery, which has shown her work and published a book accompanying Wright’s “Direct Positive” exhibition.
One of her major innovations was the use of Cibachrome, a material typically used to make prints from color slides, using light from an enlarger, Stettinius says, noting that she would place the printing material in pinhole cameras of various sizes, which she would make out of cigar boxes or suitcases, to create an image.
“She’s at her core very experimental,” he says. “She’s always been ahead of her time.”
Although she’d enjoyed drawing since childhood, Wright didn’t plan to make a career out of art. Her father encouraged her to go to business school after high school graduation, but Wright wanted to go to college. William & Mary, she says, was one of the few places that offered a tour to high school seniors. She applied at a friend’s suggestion, and when she was admitted, she was quick to accept. Heeding her father’s wish that she prepare herself for a career, Wright chose psychology.
“I thought it would be something fun and interesting and challenging that I’ve never done before, and then I can have a minor in elementary education and get certified to teach,” she says, “because there weren’t but so many jobs that were available to women.”
When Wright, then Willie Anne Boschen, entered William & Mary in 1941, she says, there were only two faculty members in the psychology department.
“I remember Dr. Edgar M. Fulton was from Austria, and he had actually studied with Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, and we thought he was extremely glamorous because of his background.”
Wright’s college experience took a dramatic turn when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during her freshman year and the United States entered World War II.
“There were girls in my dormitory whose fathers or whose kinspeople were serving in the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor,” she says. “That meant the men on the campus were going to be called up for service.”
Her fiancé, John H. “Jack” Wright Jr., whom she’d met during high school, was drafted into the Army when he returned home for a doctor’s appointment in Richmond during his second year at Virginia Tech. Part of an engineer regiment, he drove a truck carrying pontoon bridge parts.
“Everybody was worried,” Wright recalls. “By that time I lived in a sorority house, and our house mother’s son was an Army officer right in the thick of it. We’d go down and listen to radio returns to see what had happened. It was a very spooky time.”
Wright and other women students rode buses to military bases such as Fort Eustis and Camp Peary to dance with young men preparing for overseas duty.
“We visited the injured and climbed up to the top of a church steeple to look for airplanes,” she says.
There was no room in Wright’s course lineup for art classes, but she didn’t want to give them up entirely, so she audited them. One art professor, Thomas Thorne, was particularly influential.
“Mr. Thorne had special people whose work he was interested in, and there was a big room of supplies,” she says. “Because, see, this was wartime, and getting those art supplies was difficult. If you were one that he favored, he’d open the door and say, “Pick out what you wish.’”
Thorne gave Wright access to the supplies, and he selected two of her watercolor paintings to exhibit in a 1944 show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond of drawings, paintings and sculptures by students in college art programs. At the time, Wright says, she liked to paint landscapes, houses and gardens in Williamsburg, as well as fellow students sunbathing on the roof at Barrett Hall. Her watercolors were among 20 works by William & Mary students in the exhibition.
“So it seemed he really thought my work was really worthwhile,” she says. “I saved all the write-ups from the Flat Hat.”
Wright also saved the exhibition program, which emphasizes the importance of creative and cultural courses at a time when there was a tendency to curtail them in favor of courses that more directly addressed wartime needs, noting, “It would be folly not to realize the responsibility which this present generation must assume in building up the civilization of the post-war world.”
”This thing that wouldn’t let me alone”
Jack came home from the war in the fall of 1945, after Wright’s graduation from William & Mary, and they married the next January. The couple then moved to Boston, where Jack finished his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and began a career in industrial engineering. Willie Anne did intelligence testing at a private school where she also assisted in teaching fourth-grade students, and she later worked for the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation doing employee aptitude testing, but she was still drawn toward art. She began taking evening classes at an art center in Cambridge.
“I realized that I cheated myself out of any kind of instruction, and if I were going to pursue this thing that wouldn’t let me alone that I’d better get busy on it and try to see what an art education meant,” she says. “So I started with night classes, taking mostly life drawing because that was available. Everywhere we moved with his job, I went to school at night — in Louisville, Kentucky, and when we were down in Florida I went to Florida State.”
After 10 years on the move and the birth of their three children, the Wrights returned to Richmond, where Willie Anne enrolled in art classes at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University).
“One night this guy came up and said, ‘You know you should stop taking these night classes and go for a degree and take classes in the daytime.’ And I hadn’t even thought of doing that,” she says. “Then I went to see the head of the department and he said, surprisingly enough, ‘You already have a degree, so why don’t you go for a master’s?’ I had never even thought of it. After 10 years on the road and three children, that’s when I decided to really get serious about my art.”
In graduate school, Wright was 20 years older than most of her fellow students, some of whom became close friends. When she received her master of fine arts degree in 1964, the world was radically different than it had been at the time of her college graduation two decades earlier. In February, the Beatles arrived in the United States for the first time, and that spring, hundreds of students protested the Vietnam War in New York, San Francisco and other cities. Andy Warhol painted his iconic “Shot Marilyns” and Roy Lichtenstein created his comic-style work “Oh Jeff ... I Love You, Too ... But ...”
“Change fascinated me,” Wright says. In some ways, she felt more at home in this era than she did during the more traditional 1940s and ’50s.
Contemporary pop art, Motown music and the advent of color television inspired an early painting by Wright, “One Night at Jimmy’s We Saw the Supremes on Color Television,” created between 1965 and 1967. It’s currently on display in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Lewis Contemporary Galleries, diagonally across from Warhol’s “Triple Elvis,” created in 1963.
The painting captures a moment of social change in a way that’s playful and witty, says Sarah Eckhardt, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the VMFA, which has more than 40 of Wright’s works in its collection.
“It’s a beautiful dialogue because of the three Supremes and the three Elvises,” Eckhardt says. “There’s so much going on with color and pattern. To my mind, that painting pulls on the tradition of Matisse as well as Warhol at the same time.”
Eckhardt met Wright soon after arriving at the museum in 2011, when she installed “Civil War Redux,” a collection of the artist’s pinhole photographs from a series of reenactments during the 1980s and ’90s. In these images and others, the curator observes, Wright often surprises the viewer by juxtaposing contemporary culture with history.
“They seduce you into this sense that they’re historical,” she says. One example is a 1988 black-and-white photograph titled “Chancellorsville: Custer by a Pickup Truck.” Appearing hazy with age, the image shows the general in full Union Army officer garb, but standing next to a Dodge pickup.
The exhibition has also been shown at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk and other venues in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and West Virginia.
As with her introduction to pinhole photography, Wright discovered Civil War reenactments by chance. After retiring from Reynolds Metals, her husband was looking for activities to be involved in, and with that in mind, they visited St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond.
“We got there, and lo and behold it was the day the time changed, so we were an hour early to go into church,” Wright says. “So we’re sitting there across the street from Capitol Square and noticed that something was going on.”
They walked over to get a closer look and stumbled upon a recreation of Robert E. Lee’s appointment as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
“It was dead quiet,” Wright recalls, “and there were all these ladies in their dresses and then the carriage rolls up and a guy opens the door and a dead ringer for Robert E. Lee gets out.”
It was one of the first commemorations of the 125th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.
“We said, ‘Well, let’s go to the next one they’re having.’ So we started this trek following the troops. And we thought, ‘We don’t have to go very far, because most of the battles were fought in Virginia.’ But we went as far as New Mexico. We went south, we went to some in Louisiana and Mississippi, we went up and down the East Coast. It was great.”
With its long exposure time, pinhole photography “can’t play the accurate photographic game,” Stettinius says. “It ends up being mystical or theatrical.”
One of Wright’s Cibachrome images, “Anne S. at Jack B.’s Pool,” appeared on the cover of the first issue of Pinhole Journal, published by the New Mexico-based nonprofit organization Pinhole Resource from 1985 to 2006.
Eric Renner, founder of Pinhole Resource, calls Wright one of the best photographers to use the technique. In that photograph, she curved the paper around the inside of the camera for a wide-angle effect.
“I love her work,” Renner says. “She understands space and light and the emotional quality of an image.”
Another of Wright’s Cibachrome images features Renner’s wife and partner, Nancy Spencer, on the beach in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, in a long, white gown.
“With that image, there were people walking by with dogs and none of them showed up,” Renner says.
That’s because they weren’t still long enough to be cap-tured in the picture. Spencer’s wind-blown dress and hair, meanwhile, give her an ethereal appearance.
“She has such an open mind and she’s so interested in experimenting with material and technique,” Eckhardt says. “I’m amazed at how she continues to reinvent her style.”
Wright’s more recent works, featuring trumpet-shaped brugmansia flowers, vintage photographs and early 20th century tarot cards, are photograms and lumen composites made without a camera using photographic paper exposed to sunlight. These also involve a fair amount of chance, Stettinius says. Moisture on the brugmansia blooms, clouds and the direction of the sun cannot be controlled precisely.
“She allows the unknown to enter into her work,” he says. “She’s mastered the process, but the process refuses to be mastered.”
For now, Willie Anne Wright isn’t taking any more pictures. Instead, she is focused on organizing, documenting and archiving her work, for which she hopes to find a permanent home.
“I can’t see myself having the energy to do it,” she says of pinhole photography. “Right now, my mind is taken up with getting rid of it.”
But in her upstairs studio room, there is a painting in progress. It’s a brugmansia flower from her backyard. Wright says she plans to put it away to make room for her archiving project.
“It would be nice to clear out all the stuff I’ve done before and then start something new,” says Wright, who shows no sign of stopping at age 95.
And what will that be?
“I’ll start by finishing that painting,” she says.
Art, it seems, still won’t leave her alone.