Picturing “Billy the Kid”

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Billy the KidIn the 130 years since Pat Garrett gunned him down in the New Mexico Territory, Billy the Kid has fired the imaginations of millions. Aaron Copland composed a ballet about him. Michael Ondaatje wrote a novel about him. Hollywood has made close to a hundred movies or TV shows about him. Tonight he’s the subject of an hourlong “American Experience’’ documentary on Channel 2, “Billy the Kid.’’

The most interesting thing in the documentary, both for itself and for how it’s used as an artistic device, is the one known photograph of Billy. John Maggio, who wrote and directed, keeps coming back to the image. A visual refrain, it recurs the way a hook does in a hit song.

The picture cost Billy 25 cents, and he has the look of someone out to get his money’s worth. Head cocked, he’s showing off for the camera – while trying not to show that he’s showing off. His sleepy eyes and slightly parted lips give him a casual look (the open mouth also reveals a bit of snaggle tooth). He wears a vest, suspenders, a jauntily knotted bandana, and a Stetson or sombrero whose dented crown is so high it looks like a top hat. Completing the portrait is a Winchester rifle, which Billy holds upright, grasping it by the muzzle. It looks more like walking stick than weapon.

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