When I met Frank Welch for the first time, I was so young and innocent that I had no idea who he was. He had seen my photographs of Will Cannady projects and asked if I would look at a house he had completed recently.
He only wanted slides, no 4 X 5 film, and he didn’t find it necessary to look through the camera or over my shoulder. He held my infant son Eric, who I had brought along out of necessity.
It was the beginning of many opportunities to understand the complexities of this extraordinary man. He was a gentleman, with the grace of a self-confidence muted by awareness of his place in a larger world. It wasn’t until much later that I learned of Frank’s loss of his son, which altered what otherwise would have been simple idolatry of what in my naiveté seemed a perfect life.
Frank’s own photographs offered clues to his complexity. There is a photograph of a young boy splayed on an ancient French pedestal. As in the best of Frank’s architecture, it appears classic, placed within a tradition that mutes the intensity of the emotionally charged metaphor.
Working with Frank on his book about Philip Johnson and Texas was a post-graduate fellowship in how to photograph architecture. I observed his skill of critically listening to Johnson’s clients, and knew that Frank’s own success was connected to how well he listened to his clients, or rather, encouraged them to talk. He resolved their dreams with his own vision. I began to realize the nuances of how he looked at a building. Walking through a building with Frank opened my eyes, helping me see details, materials, relationships. We visited the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which I was photographing for Cite magazine; experiencing the building with him was very different from merely matching templates for good photographs.
Once I asked if he wanted the lights on in a room. “If you need lights, then I didn’t do my job,” he answered.
His way of teaching had a gentle touch; he communicated what he wanted without telling me how to do it. He wanted to photograph The Glass House in November, with leaves off the trees, but he asked that the leaves not be raked. Of course it would be black and white. In such an elegiac mood, I realized that Frank might be writing more from his own needs than to glorify Johnson.
During that visit to New Canaan, Frank’s sense of decorum impressed me. The bed in the Brick Building was unmade, with two pillows and the afterimages of two bodies. I wanted to photograph it; Frank said no.
Frank asked my wife, Lisa Hardaway, and me to go with him to visit The Birthday, which had originally been photographed by Ezra Stoller. Frank wanted new photographs as it was and as it would be remembered. The new owner did not understand its emotional significance for Frank; the intended desecration was already planned.
Late on an overcast day, a beam of sunlight came to highlight the chair that Lisa had suggested.
The emptiness of that chair will never be filled.
Paul Hester is an architectural photographer in Fayetteville, Texas.