RE-DISCOVERING THE COLOR IMAGERY OF WYNN BULLOCK
by Barbara Bullock-Wilson
(Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the online magazine Cadillac Cicatrix.)
My father Wynn Bullock was a consummate practitioner of the craft of photography, using the tools of his trade to express himself with eloquence. He is not easily placed within his chosen field, however, as he kept challenging and redefining the medium.
As an artist, Dad was never aloof from his family. Many of his well-known images were taken on family outings. Sometimes, he would go off and photograph by himself while Mom and I and my younger sister Lynne would explore the environment, collecting shells, rocks, leaves, driftwood. If we happened to be nearby, he would often invite us to look through the ground glass as he was creating his pictures. At lunchtime, we would gather all together for our picnic and tell each other stories of our day's activities. Occasionally during these outings, Dad would ask one of us to be a part of the photographs he was making. This might seem like an unusual experience for many people, but, for us, it was a familiar, comfortable process. For me, it helped form a deep connection with nature, a connection that has nurtured my entire life. Participating in the creative act also gave me the sense that I was contributing to something important, not so much as a particular individual, but as a symbol of something more universal. Although I couldn't have expressed it at the time, modeling enabled me to experience myself simply as a form of being in relation to and one with all other forms of being.
Throughout the 1950s, Dad's work in black & white photography brought him international acclaim. Then in the fall of 1959, he entered a new realm of creative expression. At the time, a friend was experimenting with lenses that were capable of focusing at extremely close range. Dad became intrigued with the perspective the lenses offered and began experimenting himself. Taking an old 35mm Exakta camera, a simple inexpensive lens and a dual-rail close-up bellows attachment, he constructed his own equipment. Using this modified camera to photograph such things as glass and water very close-up (sometimes as near as 1/16 of an inch), he found he could eliminate the intrusion of "objects" and concentrate on the phenomenon of light itself. Excited by this discovery, Dad all but stopped making black & white photographs and became totally absorbed in producing abstract color images or what he called "Color Light Abstractions." As a young boy, Dad had been strongly attracted to light. Light…baking the desert…blistering bare backs in tomato and wheat fields…filtering through eucalyptus trees…making morning grass and orange blossoms steamy and fragrant. His continuing experiences of its intense heat and brightness, its power to make things appear and disappear, its relation to life and death, made light for him the most profound and fascinating of all natural events.
In the late 1920s, it was light, through the paintings of the post-Impressionists and the photographic images of May Ray and Moholy-Nagy, which eventually led Dad to end his career as a concert singer and embrace photography as his life's work. Exploring alternative processes such as solarization and using them to achieve interesting light effects was the direction he pursued during the late 30s and 40s. In Edward Weston's photographs, it was the subtle qualities of light that helped steer his course toward straight photography. At the beginning of the 1950s, as he related to nature in new ways and began seeing things as space/time events, the significance of light became even more profound for him. Photographing through the 50s, he was aware of light as an event inherent in and affecting all other events. By the end of the 1950s, when he recognized the potential of close-up photography and began making his Color Light Abstractions, he knew he had found the means to explore light more deeply and powerfully than he had ever done before. Taken out of context, it might seem as though Dad's color abstractions were a radical departure from the mainstream of his work. In relation to the total flow of his creative life, it is obvious they were not. Beneath the differences of appearance and technique, Dad's color photography was an integral part of his overall development. There is also a clear, strong connection between his abstract color imagery of the 1960s and the last body of black & white abstract images he produced in the early 1970s. That, however, is another story.
Dad created his Color Light Abstractions for about five years (the last slides he made were dated January 1965). At first, he built a simple moveable plywood structure on the back patio in which he could work. It was about 6' x 6', had "window" cut-outs, a door, and a roof. His intention was to use natural light to make his images, orienting his little house with the movement of sun. He soon discovered, however, that there were too many foggy, overcast days and too much variability in sunlight for it to be a productive set-up. The light-house became a playhouse for my sister Lynne and Dad moved indoors. For many hours each day, he would work in his cluttered studio above the garage. A handmade apparatus, consisting of a vertical block of redwood attached to an unfinished metal base, rested on a stool. The redwood block had deep notches cut into it and into the notches were placed six to ten layers of clear window glass. Positioned over the top of this crude apparatus was his tripod-mounted, specially-adapted camera.
Surrounded by two or more photo-flood lamps and other lighting sources positioned at different heights, as well as a prism or two, Dad would sit on a high stool, crouched over the camera, his head and shoulders hidden by a black focusing cloth which allowed him to see the images more clearly and vividly. Always on the lookout for new and better resources, he would have a changing assortment of materials at hand – a dish of water with an eyedropper, a jar of honey, a tube of transparent glue…and differently patterned glassware. For color, he had pieces of tinted translucent plastic, shards of stained glass, and crumpled sheets of bright cellophane. Anything that reflected and refracted light was potentially useful.
The most valuable items in his collection were large chunks of fine optical glass that had been part of a discarded telescope lens from the Palomar Observatory. With the aid of a special hammer, he would fracture tiny pieces off the larger chunks and these he used on the topmost layer of his apparatus.
After arranging a selection of the other materials on the lower panes of clear glass, Dad would watch closely through the viewfinder of his camera as he moved things around, adding a piece here, taking something away there, increasing the brightness of illumination from one direction, changing its position from another, and controlling the in-and-out of focusing process. Forming and transforming images in this way, he created his light abstractions on 35mm Kodachrome slide film. By the clock, it was time-consuming work, for only occasionally would all the elements combine into a picture that was "right" for him. He never felt it to be dull or tedious, however, for the world of light expressed his deepest feelings and beliefs about life.
"When making these pictures," he wrote, "I use light not to make objects recognizable, but to create beautiful images of color, form…and space/time dimensions through the action of light as it strikes objects." Working with light, he experienced a freedom of expression similar to that of a composer or painter. Equally important to him was the knowledge that his images were straight photographs of actual events.
I remember the making of these images very well. If Mom or Lynne or I were in the vicinity while he was working, he would frequently motion us over to take a peek through the ground glass. Occasionally, when he had something special, he would invite me to sit on his stool and stay awhile. He would put the focusing cloth over my head and let me enter into the wondrous worlds he was creating. At times, I felt like a space traveler, witnessing the mysteries of the universe. Other times, it was like peering through a microscope, observing life at sub-atomic levels. Whether the view was macroscopic or microscopic, what moved me was a sense of existence, elemental and transcendent, all at the same time.
Whenever Dad got a new batch of original slides from the lab, we would all be eager to see them. Slideshow nights were special occasions. Dad would load the projector and make the popcorn. Lynne and I would help Mom set up the screen, arrange the chairs, and turn off the lights.
During these showings, everyone's responses were valued. If one of us didn't think the image was up to snuff, that was openly shared and almost always the judgment was unanimous. We adjusted the levels of light in the projector and played around with orientation – turning this slide up, that one down, flipping others right to left or left to right. Many images clearly had only one "right" orientation or at least a generally preferred one. Others worked well in a variety of positions, and showing selected images in different orientations became an accepted practice of Dad's.
Dad included his Color Light Abstractions in what he considered to be his most significant and satisfying work. His decision to stop making them emerged in large part from his feelings of personal success that, throughout his creative career, had always impelled him to seek new challenges. For over five years, color had helped express the beauty, richness, and potency of light as a living force. Abstraction had enabled him to get close to the essence of universal qualities. By choosing not to symbolize recognizable object-events – for example, a crocus announcing the coming of spring – and by symbolizing instead a rainbow of color forms bursting through the darkness, surging upward and vibrating with energy, Dad believed he had been able to evoke more directly and intensely the qualities which both pictures could represent. By early 1965, this stage of his creative journey felt complete and he was ready for fresh explorations.
His decision to move on was also influenced by productions problems. His cubbyhole of a darkroom was not equipped to handle color. Whenever he wanted to make a print from a transparency, he was forced to request use of a commercial facility over a hundred miles from his home. In addition, the color processing technologies that were available to him in the early 1960s did not allow him to produce stable prints. These production limitations dramatically curtailed conventional exhibition possibilities. Although he shared the work as projected slides, this was not an effective vehicle for dissemination either. Although Dad returned to black & white photography in the mid-1960s, he never lost interest in his abstract color imagery. He continued to hope for improvements in printing and display technologies that would allow him to share it in ways and at levels of quality that were satisfactory to him. He dreamed about self-contained projectors that could present the images as transparencies lit from behind or as revolving light shows. And he longed for an affordable, accessible process that would enable him to make the beautiful, stable prints he envisioned for the work.
Unfortunately, Dad did not live long enough to see any of this happen. He did, however, express the strong wish that his family would eventually find ways to make the imagery widely available. That wish is now finally beginning to be fulfilled.
© 2011/2021 Barbara Bullock-Wilson. All rights reserved.