Peeling Paint, 1970

Commentary by Paul Cotter

In the late 1960s, Wynn Bullock felt a restless wind blowing through his soul. He'd felt it before. And he was feeling it strongly now. After decades of pushing boundaries and experimenting with everything from solarizations to color light abstractions to long intermittent-time exposures, Bullock was once again ready to move on.

"One must keep pushing into the unknown," he insisted, "or the creative process comes to a halt."

That's why he paused and reflected at this juncture – as he'd done many times before – and he considered where his journey might lead him next. Wynn's daughter Barbara recalls: "There were periods in his career when he was focused on developing a body of work – and then there were other periods when he needed to step back and cleanse the palate of his mind."

During his periods of reflection, Bullock read voraciously to feed his intellectual curiosity. When he ventured out with his camera, he did it as a form of meditation. He would get in his car, drive intuitively and stop at any place that caught his interest – whether it was a deserted sardine factory, a country road or an old cemetery. Then he would quiet his mind and he would observe the things around him with total clarity – not thinking, not evaluating, not forcing an intended result. His focus was on just seeing. Just being.

This led to an elegantly simple series of images like Peeling Paint. Here we're presented with something stark and minimalist, yet rich and full of mystery. For a moment, let's try to see this as Wynn Bullock saw it. Let's take a deep breath, quiet our minds. Let's peel away the layers of obfuscation and listen to our hearts: How does this image make us feel? What can it teach us about life? About impermanence? About the relationship between darkness and light?

This last question, about light, gets to the center of Wynn Bullock's fascination with photography. "The tonal brilliance of a fine print is not an end in itself," he said. "At best it evokes a sense of light. Not alone the light that permits us to see things, but light…as a great and beautiful force."

Peeling Paint was photographed during a transitional phase in Bullock's creative journey, a time which his daughter Barbara has insightfully described as his haiku period. That's a perfect description, because everything he produced during this time was boiled down to a Zen-like essence. With Barbara's metaphor in mind, I wrote a haiku verse about this photograph. It was dashed off quickly, written in jest, meant to share in an email with Barbara. But as I took another look at it, it seemed to be whispering something. And so I'll leave you with this haiku:

A hole in space-time

Opening up to somewhere

Curling, peeling paint

Text © 2019/2020 Paul Cotter. All rights reserved.