Photographer Wynn Bullock knew how to engage the wondering viewer.
Thursday, October 18, 2001
Around the world, two names immediately come to mind at the mention of Monterey area photography: Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. These justly famous pioneers of the West Coast school were obsessed with capturing the beauty of their subjects--whether it was form and shape, as in Weston''s "Chambered Nautilus," or nature''s grandeur, as in Adams'' "Moon Over Half Dome"--a mission that stood in stark opposition to the socially conscious documentary style that so compelled their East Coast counterparts. Where the East Coast establishment inclined toward the intellectual, the West Coast chose the sensual.
Even so, there''s a detached quality to both Weston''s and Adams'' work. They tend to take their subjects out of context and turn them into objects that are viewed rather than experienced. The work of Monterey photographer Wynn Bullock, who worked only a few years later than Weston or Adams, is quite another thing altogether.
Today Bullock''s work is meeting with renewed appreciation. It hangs in various museums and collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman House and the Metropolitan Museum. In the last three years, two books of Bullock''s photographs have been published. The newest is the small format (approximately 6 inches by 5 1/2 inches) Wynn Bullock, which debuted this summer as part of Phaidon Press'' "55" series of photographic books, each featuring 55 photographs by selected photographers.
While there are things to criticize in Phaidon''s Bullock--principally the decision to use several horizontal photographs that bleed over two pages, destroying the photographs'' integrity--it provides a compelling introduction to Bullock''s photography and philosophy.
Perhaps the thing that most decisively sets Bullock apart from the icons of West Coast photography is that all of his subjects seem to be part of a larger context...or perhaps the context is the subject of his work. His figures are not isolated from their surroundings for detached examination. Instead, the environment informs the figure--and vice versa--often dropping clues for mysterious stories which the viewer must piece together.
One of Bullock''s most controversial photographs is "Child in Forest" (1951), which features his young daughter Barbara lying face down, nude, amongst ferns in a dark forest. Upon viewing the photograph, questions immediately arise. Is the child sleeping in this pristine environment? Or is she dead? Is this a life-affirming image of a human at ease in the arms of the earth? Or is there a darker message about abandonment and desolation? Regardless of the answer, anyone who views the photograph is forced to interact with the image in order to give it meaning.
Similarly, in "Navigation without Numbers" (1957), a nude woman in a rustic cabin kneels crumpled against the edge of a vast, dark bed. On the bed a child (her child?) lies sleeping, sucking its thumb. Sitting near a window is the sign that inspired the picture''s title. What are the circumstances that have come together to put this grieving(?) mother(?) in the run-down house? What emotional, physical or spiritual circumstance is she trying to navigate?
While there''s an undeniably bleak tone to "Navigation," there''s something much warmer about "Marilyn with Cat" (1956). Here a young nude woman sprawls prone on a towel in front of a fireplace with her cat. On the floor of the rustic room is a copy of Life magazine, its clearly legible title seeming to comment on the messy but comfortable scene.
Later in his career, Bullock turned away from a direct reliance on the human form to communicate what seems to be the underlying message of his work--that mankind is a part of some energy that flows and swirls throughout all creation. In "Untitled #1," he inverts the light in a detailed photograph of a tree trunk to reveal a face eerily reminiscent of the one in Edvard Munch''s "Scream." In "Wood" (1973), another haunting face emerges from the darkness of the shadows of a tree trunk.
But to focus on individual images might be to take the photographs too literally. Bullock, who died in 1975, came to photography after a career as a concert singer and a flirtation with painting, and was given to a broad range of philosophical explorations. His daughter, Barbara Bullock Wilson, still lives in Monterey and provided notes for the Phaidon book. In a recent conversation she discussed her father''s varied interests.
"He was constantly probing, seeking, thinking. He was a voracious reader and would read philosophy, psychology, semantics and science," she recalls. "He was fascinated with theoretical scientists and what they were doing...about how science and mysticism were coming closer together, and what he experienced artistically is very much connected to that.
"Dad talked about space, time and the fourth dimension a lot. The world was constantly in process, and he was trying to find visual ways to express that. He could see these things; this is how he experienced them, seeing the energy, the light, the movement that''s happening beneath the surface. It''s connected to quantum physics. I don''t want to sound hokey, but he really was on a spiritual journey, really trying to seek answers to basic, fundamental issues that all philosophers are interested in. He did it through photography. That was his way of connecting and figuring things out."