Albert Einstein, George Harrison & Orville Redenbacher:
That's Wynn Bullock, my favorite photographer
All Wynn Bullock photographs © 2016 Bullock Family Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.
When I began my study of master photographers, I started in a logical place: with Ansel Adams, the most recognizable name in American photography. I gained the deepest respect for Adams’ towering achievements artistically, technically and environmentally. But for some reason, I never connected with his work on a deep soul level.
Then I found Edward Weston. I was inspired by his photos of green peppers and other everyday objects revealed in a sensuous new way. My journey continued as I discovered the bold vision of Harry Callahan and the joy of André Kertész, who became a great personal favorite.
And then one day, my world was transformed. I was in a bookstore when I came across a small volume of photos by a man named Wynn Bullock. I felt numb with awe when I saw images like this one: photos steeped with mystery, resonating in my heart like a stone dropped to the bottom of a deep, dark well. I was hooked.
I’ve learned since then that I’m not alone in experiencing this visceral reaction when seeing Bullock’s photos for the first time. Others including Chris Johnson, a respected professor and photographer who was profoundly inspired by Bullock, have described the same feeling. It’s like peering through a portal into a world that is both real and surreal, both dreamlike and astonishingly awake. As I’ve poked my head through this portal and gradually learned to see – really see – what Bullock is showing us, my appreciation for his gifts and my understanding of photography’s potential have increased exponentially.
Here are 7 reasons why I love Wynn Bullock. (Click on any photo for a larger view.)
#1. He was seeking more than photos.
Wynn Bullock was a seeker who wanted to understand the mysteries of the universe, and he believed photography was the best way to express his observations and insights. Like the mystic Beatle George Harrison, Bullock was an artist on a spiritual quest for truth. And like Albert Einstein, who quantified the relationship between light waves and physical mass, Bullock perceived light as the visible expression of the underlying force of all existence.
“Light to me is perhaps the most profound truth in the universe,” Bullock said. “My thinking has been deeply affected by the belief that everything is some form of radiant energy.”
For Wynn Bullock, spiritual connections weren’t found in a church or temple. He saw the whole universe as a sacred space, and that’s where he encountered the face of the divine: in every pebble, every leaf and every droplet of water.
As Bullock explained, “When I feel a rock is as much of a miracle as a man, then I feel in touch with the universe.”
#2. He Challenged Perceptions.
As an avid student of quantum physics and philosophy, Wynn Bullock knew that physical objects are not quite what they appear to be. He recognized that there can be a broad chasm between our personal perceptions (which he called “reality”) and the essential nature of things as they truly are (which he called “existence.”)
He understood, for example, that our concept of permanence is just an illusion. We believe we’re looking at solid, static objects, but a closer look reveals that everything is continually flowing and interacting, like electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom. Even a seemingly “solid” rock is a fluid, ever-changing event in the river of space and time.
It can be mind-bending stuff to think about. Suffice it to say that Bullock was determined to shake up our little snow globes of perception and show us a different way of looking at things.
That’s why he explored the creative application of darkroom techniques like solarization and reticulation. That’s why he experimented with long-term exposures, compressing past, present and future in a single view. He turned images upside down. He inverted positive and negative tones. He played with our sense of scale. (See the Sea Palms photo below? Your brain recognizes large cliffs and valleys and fog, but they're actually tiny plants and rocks with water flowing over them.) Bullock did whatever he could to free us from our conceptual shackles and show us that, in his words, “this is real, too.”
He said, “Instead of using the camera only to reproduce objects, I want to use it to make what is invisible to the eye, visible.”
#3. He Followed His Instincts.
It takes courage to listen to the little voice inside us – especially when that voice is urging us to leap off the cliff of convention. But that’s exactly what Wynn Bullock did.
In the late 1920’s, he was working as a professional concert singer in Paris when he was exposed to the work of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Paul Cézanne. Bullock was dazzled by these artists’ use of light, which inspired him to pick up a camera to express himself visually. This soon became his passion, and he abandoned his musical aspirations in favor of photography.
When the Great Depression hit, he was compelled to manage his in-laws’ real estate business in Western Virginia. After that, he was pressured to pursue financial success by enrolling in law school. But all the while, he continued photographing – even though his first wife considered it a frivolous hobby, and she stormed into his darkroom and tore up his prints.
At age 38, Wynn Bullock decided enough was enough. One day he walked out of his law school class, left his books on the desk and enrolled in the Los Angeles Art Center School, where he began his serious study of photography.
With every decision he faced and every photo he took, he let his instincts guide the way.
“My pictures are never pre-visualized or planned,” Bullock said. “I feel strongly that pictures must come from contact with things at the time and place of taking.”
#4. He Never Stopped Exploring.
Some artists become fossilized by confining themselves to one style and producing formulaic pieces that fit the same mold. For Wynn Bullock, this was missing the whole point of life’s journey. “Searching is everything,” he said, “going beyond what you know.”
Inspired by the thinking of Albert Einstein as well as avant-garde painters and philosophers ranging from Paul Klee to Lao-Tzu, Bullock embarked on a lifelong search for meaning. With camera and curiosity as his tools, he ventured through several phases of creative exploration, including a several-year period in the early 1960s when he experimented with what he called Color Light Abstractions. At a time when color photography was considered a gimmick with no rightful place in the fine art world, Bullock did the unthinkable: He abandoned his black-and-white work and set out to capture the colorful essence of light energy as the luminous soul of the universe.
With a sense of childlike wonder, he arranged tiny pieces of broken glass on tiered glass panes and added a mix of water, honey, crumpled cellophane and other materials to the layers. He then refracted light through his miniature optical playground, creating a dazzling collection of abstract images that dissolve our adhesive glues of logic and rational perception.
And then, when he felt he'd accomplished his goal, he stopped shooting Color Light Abstractions and returned to his black-and-white work, taking it in fresh new directions. Like a wave in the ocean, Bullock kept moving. While he experimented with many photographic techniques during his career, he refused to allow any single technique to define his work.
Bullock believed, “If you stop searching, you stop living, because you’re dwelling in the past.”
#5. He Saw Unity in Everything.
For a world that’s obsessed with the differences that divide us – black/white, rich/poor, liberal/conservative – Bullock brings another perspective. Seeing the underlying unity and harmony in the patterns of the universe, he observed that all things are inextricably interrelated. Imagine two ends of a string, he told us. Each end exists only in relation to the other end. And without the two opposing ends, there can be no piece of string. In his words, “Opposites are one.”
Through his photography, Bullock sought to deepen our understanding of this universal principle. Instead of showing a nude body on silky satin sheets, he preferred to juxtapose the smooth skin against rough decaying wood in a forest or an old barn. In doing so, he’s giving us a lesson in contrast and unity. Without smooth, there could be no concept of rough. And without rough, no smooth. See? They’re separate … yet inseparable.
#6. He Wasn’t Interested in Fame.
Ansel Adams considered his friend Wynn Bullock one of the most influential photographers of all time and said, “Because of Wynn Bullock’s work, I understand more of photography, more of art and more of the human spirit.”
So why is Ansel Adams a household name and Wynn Bullock is not?
Here’s one reason: While Adams was an enthusiastic promoter of his own work and photography in general, Bullock had no interest in self-promotion. In fact, he thumbed his nose at fame. When a powerful figure in the photography world wanted to write a book that could help make Bullock as widely known as Adams, Bullock refused to grant permission. He said the proposed author didn’t understand his art and his ideas well enough to write the book. As you can imagine, this snub did not endear Bullock to the photographic establishment and it did not help to preserve his legacy.
Back in the 1950s, Bullock did receive considerable recognition when two of his photos were main attractions in Edward Steichen’s blockbuster “Family of Man” exhibit. And his works are included in more than 90 major museum collections around the world. And yet Bullock’s name today is relatively unknown. Once again I’m reminded of George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle” who wrote transcendent songs while watching John and Paul bask in the spotlight.
Wynn Bullock had no problem with that. As he explained, “I’m not searching with my camera to please anyone or to report on happenings or to sell pictures. I photograph to learn and to understand.”
#7. He Was a Good Man.
How many times have you admired someone with supreme talent – an artist, an athlete, a movie star – and then learned that they’re disgraceful jerks in their personal lives?
With Wynn Bullock, my discovery was just the opposite. The more I learned about him and his life, the more I liked and respected him.
Over the last two years, my wife and I have built a warm friendship with Bullock’s daughter Barbara, who is pictured in his iconic 1951 photo “Child in Forest.” I met Barbara when she was giving a talk on her father’s work at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As our group watched a film about Wynn Bullock, Barbara gave us little bags of popcorn to munch on.
“My dad made the world’s best popcorn,” she told us. She recalled how her father would invite his young daughters into his home studio to see the latest images he was working on. He would encourage their comments, welcome their critique – and treat them to his freshly-made popcorn while showing slideshows of his newest photos. It’s been more than 40 years since Wynn Bullock passed away, but Barbara says the smell of hot popcorn still brings him back to her side.
Wynn Bullock was a great photographer. He was also a beloved father and husband who found his soul mate in his second wife, Edna. He was loved as a friend and mentor, too. Regardless of how busy or tired he was, his home was open to anyone who wanted to stop by and talk about photography, philosophy and life.
The writer Henry Miller called Wynn Bullock “a dreamer divinely possessed.” Bullock’s daughter Barbara called him “a visual philosopher.” His friend Sandy, who worked as caretaker on a ranch in Big Sur territory, called him “a goddamn pillar of love.” I have all of these in mind when I call Wynn Bullock, very simply and sincerely, my favorite photographer.
To Learn More ...
I encourage you to visit the Wynn Bullock website. You’ll find galleries of his work along with insightful commentaries, videos, books and other resources that will deepen your understanding of one of the world’s most inspiring photographers.
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