“This was the beginning of the greatest generation—about the time [World War II] broke out.”
“Billie Seamans’s black-and-white photographs have recorded the history of Desha County, from the Main Street of McGehee to the cotton farms of the Delta. Since 194, he has continued his profession and maintained a successful photography business until the age of 87. Now at the age of 92, his extraordinary work is receiving statewide attention.”
—Arkansas Arts Council
As children of World War II, my wife Marion and I can never recall a time when we did not know Billie Seamans. As long as we can remember, he has been the premier professional photographer in our hometown. For the seven decades of our lives he has captured and preserved the images of the people, places, and events that have made us who we are today.
In this regard, we are not alone. We agree that Billie Seamans may be the best known and most recognizable name in the living history of McGehee, Arkansas. Surely, he is also one of the most respected and beloved men of our era and area.
It is likely that in those seventy-plus years there has not been a person in McGehee and the surrounding area who has not benefited from Billie’s amazing photographic skills, either as subjects of his photographs—individually or in groups—or as viewers of them, and those photos number in the thousands.
I happen to have had a particular personal knowledge of Billie and his photographic skills since his lovely wife Dorothy and I are related. Her father, John Barrett, and my mother, Vivian Barrett Peacock, both of my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas, a few miles west of McGehee, were first cousins.
Mari and I, like so many other Arkansans, especially those of us who have known him personally for so many years, have been blessed by Billie’s warm personality and wonderful photos. Since Mari and I have lived in Oklahoma for the past thirty-six years, we have not seen Billie or Dorothy as often as we would have liked.
So we were grateful for the pleasure of seeing them together at the memorial service for Mari’s mother held in McGehee in 2008. Later, we had the good fortune to accidentally run into Billie while visiting the McGehee Veterans Memorial in 2011 where we had an opportunity to chat for a few moments. Since then we have had no personal contact with either of them. (See my earlier post titled “My Bucket-List Trip II: The Arkansas Delta.”)
Thus we were thrilled to learn recently of a signal honor for Billie in the form of a Lifetime Achievement Award to be conferred upon him at age ninety-two by the Arkansas Arts Council.
In nominating Billie for this award, veteran newspaper editor and publisher Charlotte Schexnayder of Dumas, an Arkansas journalistic institution in her own right, had this to say about him (with photos inserted by me):
April 5, 2013
To Whom It May Concern:
As a contemporary, I have long admired the photographic genius of Billie Seamans of McGehee.
In fact as editor of The McGehee Times, I reported on his daring and impressive experience as an Air Force photographer working in the nose of a bomber during Allied raids in Europe. I should add that he bailed out when his plane became disabled, and thus had courage along with camera expertise.
In my subsequent career as editor and publisher of The Dumas Clarion for 44 years, I continued to observe his fine work and use a number of his photographs in our publication.
Billie Seamans has the ability to capture the essence of his subjects, whether individuals, families or scenes. His portrayals ranging from agriculture to distinctive Delta scenery truly are of museum quality. He also has chronicled many educational and civic events, thus using his camera lens to record Desha County history.
With his remarkable ability and pleasant personality, he has truly focused on the life of small town America in a remarkable manner. He has used his extraordinary gift for the benefit of many.
Truly, Billie Seamans is a Master Photographer, and I am honored to nominate him for a Governor’s Award.
This award and the lifetime of service that it honors were also described by columnist Leslie Newell Peacock (no relation) in a recent article in the Eye Candy blog of the Arkansas Times (with original opening photo from the article and additional photos inserted by me and with slight changes in brackets made by his son Harry):
Photographer Seamans: Lifetime Achievement Award winner
Posted online by Leslie Newell Peacock on Tue, Jul 16, 2013 at 4:14 PM
The Arkansas Arts Council named the winners of the 2013 Governors Awards for artists and art supporters last week, with the Lifetime Achievement Award going to Billie Seamans, 92, of McGehee, for his career in photography. . . .
Here’s more information about Seamans from the Arts Council:
Billie Seamans was born on May 22, 1921, and has lived most of his life in McGehee where, at the age of 92, he continues to view the world around him with clear interest and wonder.
After his brother Glenn died in the military during World War II, Billie was drafted and served in the Army Air Force. It was there that he learned photography and had a “bird’s-eye view” from the ball turret of a B17 bomber with the 301st Bomber Group. He completed 50 missions and returned to McGehee in 1944. He met his future wife, Dorothy Barrett of Selma, Ark., and they had three sons: Jerry, Harry and Bill. The couple recently celebrated 69 years of marriage.
Soon after the war, with benefits from the G.I. Bill, Billie entered Arkansas A&M College in Monticello and honed his photography skills under the tutelage of Mrs. Drummond, a professional photographer in McGehee. [Personal Note: Mari still displays a photo of her late mother, Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Williams of McGehee, that was made during WWII by Mrs. Drummond while Mari’s father, Grover Williams, was away fighting in the South Pacific. For a tribute to Grover, see my earlier post titled “The Passing of a Real Man.”]
In 1949 Billie bought his first camera. It was an 8 x 10 “view” camera, which produced high-quality pictures from 8 x 10 negatives. He did not have a car or a studio, so he made appointments by telephone and walked to each house or business to photograph his subjects. He then developed the photographs in the small darkroom that he built in the back yard behind the apartment in which he and Dorothy and their growing family lived. He was paid one dollar for each photograph.
In the 1950s, he was hired by International Harvester to photograph farm equipment. That job led to employment [as a freelance photographer] with the company [which was his primary work for about twenty years. During the time with HI, Billie was] offered [the opportunity] to move his family to Chicago, but [he] chose to remain in McGehee [because he thought it was a better place to raise his boys].
After the work with HI ran out, [Billie built a studio in McGehee and] continued his photography as a profession and maintained a successful business until the age of 87. During those years he became active in the Arkansas Professional Photographer’s Association (APPA) and served as its president in 1977. He was recognized over the years with several state awards from APPA, and in 1985 one of his photographs was a national winner.
As a participant in the Arkansas Delta Oral History Project, which is affiliated with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville under the direction of Dr. David Joliff, Billie was interviewed last year by Yogi Denton’s Advanced Placement students at McGehee High School. They discovered that he had hundreds of photographs that tell the history and stories of his experience in Delta life. With the help of Brandi Anthony’s EAST Initiative Lab class and Kem Haddock’s Photography I class the project has been expanded.
Many of the black-and-white images that recorded the history of the region from the main street of McGehee to the cotton farms of the rich Delta soil are being catalogued by those students. Some of those photographs have been exhibited at several community events, and now a book is in progress about Billie and his impact in the Delta. It is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2013.
Billie continues to maintain storage of his photographs and negatives dating back to WWII. There are hundreds of them. The McGehee High School students continue to archive the negatives and to preserve them for the future.
Collection of Billie’s Wartime Memories
Many of the photographs made by Billie and others of his service as a ball-turret gunner and photographer on bomber raids over Africa and Europe during WWII have been preserved in a private collection and were shared recently by Billie and his son Harry. That amazing collection is titled:
Billie J. Seamans
World War II Pictures & Commentary
Army Air Force
Northern Africa & Italy
54 missions, 5 incomplete
(credited with 50 missions)
—12 as ball turret gunner
—42 as photographer
All of the black-and-white photos featured in this blog post were lifted from that priceless collection with permission from Harry and Billie to whom I am deeply indebted. To view that fascinating collection of historic and personal photographs of Billie’s childhood, military career, return from the war, and marriage to Dorothy, along with Billie’s personal commentary on these photos and events, click here.
Meanwhile I am indebted to Pat Scavo, owner of the Blue Moon Art Gallery in Hot Springs and a native of McGehee, who also nominated Billie for the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was she who first informed me about Billie’s upcoming honor and provided me much of the material and many of the photos and links about it that I have featured on this post.
Trey Martley, executive producer of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History in Fayetteville, has interviewed Billie in connection to a documentary the Center is producing on the subject.
Congratulations to Billie Seamans
for His Lifetime of Service
to His Country, His State, His Region, and His Community
In addition to all these well-deserved honors and distinctions, this post is a personal tribute from Mari and me to Billie Seamans, Arkansas’ War Hero and Master Photographer. Along with the thousands of our fellow Arkansans who have known (or known of) Billie and his military service and his marvelous body of photographic work we would like to say:
“Congratulations on your achievements and awards, Billie. Keep flying high and taking your photos as we here below guard and treasure the precious moments and memories you have left us to appreciate and enjoy. Your legacy will live forever”!
Source of Photos
Used by permission
The recent photo of Billie Seamans was used with permission of The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville. http://pryorcenter.uark.edu/
The photo of the column of cotton pickers was taken from: “Photographer Seamans: Lifetime Achievement Award winner,” an online article about Billie Seamans posted in the Eye Candy Blog of the Arkansas Times by Leslie Newell Peacock on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, and used with permission. http://www.arktimes.com/EyeCandy/archives/2013/07/16/photographer-seamans-lifetime-achievement-award-winner
Except for the photo of the cotton pickers above, all the black-and-white photos in this post were taken from “Billie J. Seamans World War II Pictures & Commentary,” compiled by Billie and Harry Seamans and used with their permission. The collection can be accessed at: http://www.peacockeditorial.com/BillieJSeamansWWII1943Pictures.pdf
The recent color photos of Billie and Dorothy Seamans and their family members were provided by their son Harry Seamans.
The photo of the McGehee, Arkansas, monument to the military veterans from the McGehee area was taken from a personal snapshot made by Jimmy and Marion Peacock in 2011.