Home Atlanta News My Atlanta: Billy Howard’s “homage to the city that has given me so much”

My Atlanta: Billy Howard’s “homage to the city that has given me so much”

by Atlanta Business Journal

(Editor’s note: ArtsATL has presented many stories in recent years in Atlanta’s artists’ own words. This new series, “My Atlanta,” will turn the spotlight on photographers, who will use their images and supporting text to illustrate how living in Atlanta has inspired their careers and lives. Today we start with documentary photographer Billy Howard. He is one of the city’s most prominent photographers, and his work is part of the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the High Museum of Art, The Carter Presidential Center, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, The University of Georgia College of Environment+Design, and MOCA GA.)   

This summer marks 45 years since I moved to Atlanta, a somewhat stunning anniversary. My college roommate rented a townhouse and invited me to seek my fortune in the big city. I had no idea what I wanted to do but knew that it didn’t include living in my parents’ house in Raleigh, North Carolina — something I am quite sure my parents didn’t want either! Now, almost a half-century later, I can’t think of a better place to have staked my flag.

Atlanta photographer Billy Howard

The city took me in, offered me opportunities and friendships, and has seen me through decades of love and loss, pain and joy. I found my love for documentary photography and telling the stories of others who needed a voice — people with AIDS, children with cancer, people living with disabilities and visual impairments, and teenagers with mental health challenges.

Atlanta is home to some of the most incredible nonprofits in the world and they have allowed me to document people in developing countries suffering from poverty and health issues. It has been a privilege that all started with a job as a cub reporter for one of Atlanta’s suburban weekly newspapers.

These images are an homage to the city that has given me so much. Some were taken recently, during the pandemic, and some decades ago. They represent both my love for the city and the opportunities the city has given me to tell its stories. They are just a small snippet of hundreds of thousands of times I have clicked my shutter, and I present them as a poem of admiration for Atlanta.

Many artists make pilgrimages to New York or Paris, but Atlanta gave me the keys to the world.

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Billy Howard
The pandemic presented us all with challenges, but my wife, Laurie, and I took advantage of our time to ride our bikes along the BeltLine, which passes right by our neighborhood. It was a great experience seeing the city from another point of view. We were both moved by the Black Lives Matter mural painted near Ponce City Market.

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Billy Howard
This summer marks my 30th year as a freelance photographer, and some of my favorite clients are the independent schools, colleges and universities in the metro area. I like to capture the joy of learning, and one of my favorite images is this one of George, a young swimmer at The Lovett School.

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Billy Howard
While I’ve had opportunities to travel the world, the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and Paralympics brought the world to me. My images, along with those of my friend Marilyn Suriani’s, were projected on the Jumbotron screen in the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremonies to accompany the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While I loved the Olympics, it was the Paralympic Games that had the biggest impact on me. Athletes with physical disabilities from all over the world coming together in Atlanta to compete. Folklorist Maggie Holtzberg and I created an exhibit and book for the first Cultural Paralympiad, photographing and telling the stories of people with disabilities. This is a photograph of Lauren McDevitt Howard (no relation) and her horse, Skip. She went on to win the Paralympic bronze medal in dressage.

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Billy Howard
Atlanta is more than a single city; it is a region covered in lovely towns and suburbs. Agnes Scott College in Decatur has a beautiful observatory, Bradley Observatory. One night, as I sat on the field below it with my wife, Laurie, I took a very long exposure as the stars swirled around it.

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Billy Howard
My favorite part of the city are the people and in my career I’ve met everyone from Jimmy Carter to Hank Aaron, but this photograph of the late humorist Lewis Grizzard and Civil Rights activist Hosea Williams, to me, sums up the essence of the city. A southern good ‘ol boy and a Civil Rights icon, sitting together as brothers in, as the marketing campaign once tagged it, the city too busy to hate.

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Billy Howard
My own neighborhood of Glenwood Park is a diverse microcosm of the city as a whole, with a mix of ethnic, racial, religious, straight and LGBTQ Atlantans all living together in harmony. Every year, we celebrate our love for the city and the country with a huge fireworks display for the 4th of July. This photo was taken from our deck.

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Billy Howard
Our view is dominated by a giant cell tower, which I grudgingly grew to love. It always looks the same, yet always looks different as the sky presents an ever-changing display. Over the course of nine days during the pandemic, I photographed it every night at 9 p.m.

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Billy Howard
I’ve watched as the city has grown from a skyline dominated by the iconic 720-foot-tall Peachtree Plaza to our current skyline, where Portman’s masterpiece is just one of many that arise out of the city to welcome me home. The photograph above the headline was taken from the Alston & Bird law firm offices on the 50th floor of One Atlantic Center, almost 100 feet above the once-imposing Peachtree Plaza.

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