Bill Gillette—photojournalist, artist, reporter, teacher, father, world traveler, and passionate advocate for the overlooked or undervalued—left us at age 89, on Sunday, August 1st, 2021, in San Luis Obispo, California after a swift decline in his health.
Bill was an admired member of Westcliffe’s community for over twenty-five years. He was an active participant in the area’s creative life, serving on community boards and organizations supporting the arts and humanities. Bill’s photo studio displayed his most recent photographs of the ranches, mountains, and wildlife of the area, and served as a drop-in spot for discussion about politics, artistic expression, and local government.
Always eager to take on new challenges, at age 77 Bill joined the Wet Mountain Valley Fire District both as an active member of the fire team and as the District’s documentarian. His experiences with with the district were compiled into his book Unsung Heroes—Volunteer Firefighters: New Challenges for an Old Tradition (2010), while his photo work on the area’s wildlife is presented in his book The Living Landscape: Seasons Under the Sangres (2014). His prose and photos documenting the area’s ranches are captured in his book A Passion for Ranching: Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley Heritage (2005). Over his years in Westcliffe, he taught a series of nature photography workshops with his friend and colleague in photography, Jim Havey.
Willard (Bill) Eugene Gillette was born in Cooperstown, New York on April 3rd, 1932, then raised in nearby Cherry Valley. His father operated the town’s grocery store, and as a teenager Bill was known for his excellent dancing and singing, and his positive outlook on life. He entered college at age 17, then withdrew to enroll in the Air Force in 1951.
The Air Force provided Bill his photographic training, which he used for aerial surveillance and mapping missions with the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. Strapped into the open tail end of a B29, Bill used a five-foot-long lens to document Korean, Chinese and Russian land formations during the Korean War.
While serving in the Air Force reserves, Bill completed his bachelor’s degree in history at New York State University Albany (SUNY), worked for a brief time in New Orleans, then traveled to Colorado where he had first fallen in love with the Rocky Mountains during his Air Force training. He received an honorary discharge from the Air Force in 1959 and took a job teaching business and history at Nucla High School in southwestern Colorado followed by a stint working in one of the area’s uranium mines.
While working in the mines, Bill invented the first durable and portable system for realistically lighting and shooting the dark and dusty work of hard-rock mining. His system tied together a series of inter-linked photovoltaic sensors, sealed batteries, and strategically located flash units. His black and white photojournalistic work in the mines gained the attention of magazine publishers around the country, soon garnering Bill assignments with local newspapers, Time and Newsweek, and travel magazines such as Ford Times. Bill married Beverly Bunker in Nucla (1962), received his masters degree in journalism and history at the University of Colorado Boulder (1967), moved to Fort Collins and through the support of the GI bill, bought his first home. He then earned his Ph.D. in communications and natural resources (1971) from Colorado State University.
Bill was enlisted by the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency to join one hundred other American photographers in the Documerica program. These photographers crossed the USA, photographing the effects rampant pollution had on our cities, small towns and natural environment. The goal of the program was to use the immediacy of photography to encourage the development of sustainable community ecologies and cleaner industrial practices. The photos from the Documerica program had a major impact upon legislation and the emerging ecology movement.
Bill’s photographs of ranching, mining, and agricultural work in the American West are now on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C., and the span of his work with Documerica is part of the permanent collection of the U.S. National Archives. His early photo work in uranium and gold mining is also catalogued in the archives of the Colorado State Historical Society in Denver.
In 1973, Bill moved with his family to Flagstaff where he taught at Northern Arizona State university. Bill then accepted a tenured position with the journalism department at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa in 1976. While living with his family and teaching in the midwest, Bill began pursuing photo assignments that sent him around the world.
He spent a year traveling the world on a grant from the UN World Food Project, documenting starvation and migration conflicts resulting from mis-managed farming and food distribution. He photographed hidden death camps in India; violent protests in the Philippines; conflicts in Palestine, Israel and throughout the Middle East; and devastated rural communities in Russia and Mexico.
This was followed by a multi-year study of energy industries for the national Energy and Natural Resources project that took him to the oil rigs of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska; to the controversial construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, built atop a series of active earthquake faults in California; and to the oil fields of west Texas and Oklahoma.
Bill also travelled to Nicaragua and El Salvador to document American intervention in the area’s civil wars; to the California Central Valley where he photographed exploitive labor practices with migrant agricultural communities; and worked alongside Mexican and American anthropologists studying the slow decline of the small, hand-driven farming community of Yatzachi el Alto in Oaxaca, Mexico. He returned to Russia, photographing changes in rural life and culture as the Soviet Union collapsed. Bill also spent a number of years documenting the broken families and failed small towns resulting from the unregulated banking and corporatization practices that created the Iowa farm crisis. Much of his work, over the years, appeared in the National Geographic News Service syndicated through the New York Times, and in National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Bill retired from Iowa State University in 1997, and recently divorced, he relocated to Westcliffe. After a life traveling and documenting the world, Bill often said he felt most at home and welcome in Westcliffe. He once said that he rarely felt the need to travel after settling in Westcliffe because he found the combination of communities, diverse beliefs, and complex connections to wildlife in the Wet Mountain Valley to be just as engaging and ever-changing as what he encountered in his international travels. A life-long admirer of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, Bill thought of his nature photography as a small contribution to the early American concept of transcendentalism and its attempt to commune with the natural world.
A memorial gathering was held at Saturday September 18th, 2021 at the Wet Mountain Fire District station, 215 North 4th Street, Westcliffe, CO 81252. The family encouraged those who knew Bill to attend and share their memories. Instead of sending flowers, they asked that donations be made Bill’s name to the Wet Mountain Fire District at https://wetmountainfire.com, or to the ASPCA at https://www.aspca.org/ways-to-give.
Obituary published in the Wet Mountain Tribune, Westcliffe, Colorado, August 26, 2001.
Also read Bill's obituary in the Des Moines Register - published September 2, 2021.