For most people in Alchoholics Anonymous, Bill W. is “The Man.” He’s the guy who helped them turn their lives around in 12 manageable steps, one day at a time. He’s their friend and they’re his friend by extension.
And yet, who was Bill W., really?
Documentary filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino offer a two-part answer to that question with their film “Bill W. and its companion photo exhibition, “The Bill W. Photographic Collection.” The exhibit opens in four cities this spring and summer and online after May 29 at page124photos.com.
Archival-quality limited edition prints of the photos from the exhibit are on sale, offering Friends of Bill W. and collectors of fine art photography a unique opportunity to bring history into their own homes.
The film and the never-before-seen photos reveal an intimately human side of the iconic figure who was named one of the most important people of the 20th century by Time magazine. Images depict Wilson in ordinary life: at home playing the violin, relaxing with his wife, Lois, making coffee in his kitchen, walking in the woods, even lugging a crate of Coca-Cola from the trunk of his car.
Most of these photos were never seen by the public; rather they were discovery in 2005 when Hanlon and Carracino were two years into the eight-year process of making their documentary. At the time, the filmmakers had little in the way of visuals for their project — a result largely of the anonymous nature of their subject. They learned of an eBay sale of a small number of negatives of Bill Wilson, offered by a collector of sports memorabilia who had purchased them accidently with several larger lots of photographs. The collector was just about to throw them in the trash when he noticed the name “Wilson” on several of the envelopes. After discovering who “Wilson” was, he put them on eBay to see if there was any interest. Carracino and Hanlon jumped on the opportunity.
“There were 13 negatives up for auction,” Carracino says. “I remember the number because I thought that was all we’d ever see. We won as many as we could, maybe five or six. But we succeeded in convincing him we were serious bidders.”
Hanlon went to meet the collector.
“I was stunned when he pulled out several large shoeboxes filled with more than 1,600 negatives,” he says.
After purchasing the collection, Hanlon found Jim Megargee of MV Labs in New York City, a master printer of black and white negatives who has worked with such famed photographers as Annie Leibovitz, James Nachtwey, and the Gordon Parks Foundation. Megargee advised and helped with the preservation and restoration of the negatives.
“Overall, they were in fairly good shape, but they hadn’t been stored correctly. Some were scratched; some had dust on them,” Hanlon says. “The real issue was that they had been sitting for over 50 years in non-archival glassine sleeves, which had the potential to damage them irreparably.”
The pair spent thousands of hours preserving and restoring the negatives.
“As for the cost — well, we’ve never added it all up, and it’s probably best that we don’t,” says Carracino. “But these images are a national treasure. They’re worth every penny.”
“The Bill W. Photographic Collection,” twelve limited-edition series of six photos each, begins its exhibit series Mary 29 in New York City. It continues on to Los Angeles and Orange County, as follows:
- May 29: New York, Salmagundi Club.
- June 5: Los Angeles, Skirball Cultural Center.
- June 6: Laguna Beach, Artists in Recovery.
- June 10: Corona del Mar, The Port Theater.
Each exhibition will feature talks with the filmmakers, celebrity attendance, and a variety of additional entertainment and activities, including a screening of “Bill W.” at the Orange County exhibit in Corona del Mar.
Gallery quality prints of each of the 72 limited-edition photographs are on sale for $750 to $2,500 in sizes ranging from 11-by-14 to 24-by-30 inches. A portion of the proceeds from the sales will be donated to several recovery-related charities.