Early in 1980, a handsome and strange young man with a rabbi or priest’s eyeglasses, landed in Paris like an UFO, a portfolio under his arm.
American, he was coming from London where he had studied art and photography with Bill Brandt and with abstract painter Peter de Francia.
We met at Editions Contrejour. On his photographs of the Hammam Moulay Idriss in Fez, ghostly white bodies, like sensuous and poisonous flowers, arched in the steam.
William Betsch did not like to be called Bill. He lived at the time in a bedsit on Collingham Road, leading an excentric, poor and rather isolated life : cheap Indian takeout, thin slices of soap, pennies in radiators for damp winters.
Soon we were piling up the contents of his room (photographs, mainly) in my Volkswagen and William started on what would be 30 years in Paris.
He lived by night. He had brought back from Morocco a fondness for haschich and beautiful color photographs of Fez’s medieval labyrinths where abject poverty is clothed in the beauty of zelliges mosaics, fountains, ancient mosques and palaces. A Kodak Price for 1st book allowed William to go back to Fez, first working with writer Nadia Tazi, then with myself when I joined him.
Two books came out of a long and complex adventure that lasted several years : Le Bain ( Fanlac publishers), a meditation on bodies and mortality, combined photographs from abattoirs with those of the hammam. The book would also become the base for a short film De Doute et de Grâce, with Delphine Seyrig reading the texts.
His second book The Hakima : a Tragedy in Fez(Aperture) was published thanks to Mark Holborn with a preface by Paul Bowles .The book tells the tale of a young Fassi woman who jumped from a roof because she had lost her viriginity and was to be married off. It is a palimpsest of interviews, quotes, diaries and photographs which attempt to recreate the chaos, repression, humor and beauty of a town an its inhabitants.
Then we chose different paths. William explored the theme of burnt books, inspired by the famous phrase of German poet Heine : « They burn books ; they will also, in the end, burn people. »
Thus the themes of Nazism, the camps, Judaism, made an oblique entry into his work. Using again the multi-layered structure of The Hakima, his book Drancy ou le travail d’oubli (march 2010) was published in Paris and London ( Thames & Hudson). The book questions memory and the repressed ; with texts and photographs taken in 1999, William ponders the pencil and chalk graffiti, in French and Hebrew, that the condemned prisoners have left on the walls of the too-well named Cité de la Muette. He quotes the survivors of this sinister transit camp and takes snapshots of the life of the Cité’s contemporary dwelllers.
Like Brandt, Brassai or Joel-Peter Witkin, William Betsch was a photographer of the night, night of the bodies and of the souls; he attempted to communicate the invisible: stutters of memory, stutters of the repressed, like the charred and fragile pages of burnt books…
But we shall also remember his great, childish laugh, his enthusiasms, his endless letters on onionskin paper, his delirious orchestrations of the souk Sebbaghine’s dyers, jumping above colored wells.
He was seen questioning a Moroccan mountain witch about his future, circulating in Paris suburbs, examining the Sybils’ mosaics in Sienna’s Cathedral, the mists of dawn at Mont Saint-Michel, sheep and beef carcasses in the abattoirs, war’s ruins in Sarajevo.
He leaves important work, with multiple secrets that remain to be deciphered.
May his work’s rays touch the future, as the light of certain dead stars.
New York, 7 août 2010.
Peter de Francia, William’s Professor at the Royal College of Art in London:
My recollections of first meeting Bill Betsch (as he then liked to be called) are extremely dim, but I do remember that the distinguished American art historian Dore Ashton spoke to me about a student of hers who was thinking of applying to the Royal College, where I was Professor of Painting. He came and we spoke. It is important to stress that Betsch was not a painter in the strict sense of the word: at that time he was, as I remember, doing constructions involving a board perforated with small holes into which pegs were inserted. He impressed me with his lucid humour and lively intelligence. So I took him into the School, where he thrived. He made an important contribution to the diversification of the School which I sought.
That the time he spent at the College was so successful was largely due to the enthusiasm which he invested in his projects, notably in the pioneering work he did in the systematic cataloguing of the scores of drinking fountains, many of them very small but richly decorated, in the city of Fez in Morocco.
The imagination and quality of his published work since amply justifies our faith in him.
Peter de Francia
And here is a text by his friend Nicholas Kamm, AFP photographer in Washington, DC.
William et moi avons été tres proches pendant de nombreuses années, puis nous nous sommes brouillés pour des sottises. Mais je l’ai toujours considéré comme mon ami, malgré tout, meme si nous ne nous parlions plus.
Sa mort m’a profondemment ému et m’a rappelé tous les moments que nous avions passés ensemble: les heures interminables au desk, les heures que j’ai passé a developer ses films de Croatie et de Bosnie bien des années après qu’il les avait shooté car il n’avait pas l’argent pour le faire, ainsi que quelques rouleaux de son travail remarquable sur Drancy, les batailles syndicales a l”AFP, la journée que nous avions passé a Drancy, les pots au Vaudeville, le nouvel an qu’il etait venu passer chez nous a Chartres, les heures que nous passions au téléphone quand j’étais a Nicosie.
Tous ces moments étaient des moments d’éducation. On apprenait toujours quelque chose avec William. Si ce n‘etait pas un fait, un concept philosophique ou une vision differente du monde qui nous entoure, c’était sur la psychologie tres complexe de William lui-même. Rien n’etait simple avec lui et c’est ça qui le rendait a la fois tellement attachant, pour ceux et celles a qui il avait accordé son amitié, et si rebutant pour les autres. J’ai eu la chance de compter parmi ses amis et jamais n’y a-t-il eu d’ami plus loyal.
Je suis heureux qu’il ai pu publier son travail sur Drancy avant de nous quitter. Cet ouvrage est un testament de l’obstination et des principes que William a toujours eu et a défendu toute sa vie. Je suis fier d’y avoir participé d’une certaine façon.
Bizarement, il y a quelques semaines, j’ai essayé de le joindre au téléphone parce qu’il me manquait, ignorant tout de sa maladie. Mais je n’ai pas réussi a l’avoir. Je suis triste de ne pas avoir pu lui parler une dernière fois pour qu’il sache qu’il était toujours mon ami.
Washington, Août 2010.