Commentary by Barbara Bullock-Wilson

Throughout the 1950s, my father'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, Ernie Victorine, an amateur photographer and good friend who had a flair for making camera lenses, was experimenting with a lens that was capable of focusing at extremely close range. He invited Dad over to see some of the strange light effects he was producing.

Recalling the visit to Sir George Pollock, a photography colleague in England, Dad wrote "The effects I saw when looking into Ernie's camera moved me deeply. Although cameras require an object to record an image, his relatively short focal length lens placed very close to pieces of colored glass, with three or four times the normal bellows extension, recorded, not the surface physical characteristics of the glass object being viewed, but what seemed like non-objective forms made up of light."

Intrigued with the perspective the lens offered, Dad began experimenting himself. What excited him most was the potential to visually and esthetically explore the phenomenon of light, not as an illuminant, but as a universal force in its own right.

Taking an old 35mm Exakta camera, an inexpensive lens, and a dual-rail close-up bellows attachment, he constructed his own equipment. At first, he built on the back patio of our home a simple moveable plywood structure in which he could work. It was about 6' x 6' with cut-outs for windows, a door, and a roof. His intention was to use natural light to make his images, orienting his little house with the movement of the 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. His light-house became a playhouse for my sister Lynne and Dad moved indoors.

For many hours a 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 he was creating 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 bring his camera lens sometimes as close as 1/16 of an inch to the top layer of fractured optical glass. He would then compose his images through the ground glass, adjusting the angles and intensities of his light sources, re-positioning prisms as well as the items held by the multi layers of glass, and controlling the in-and-out of the focusing process.

By the clock, it was time-consuming work, for only occasionally would all the elements combine into a picture that he felt moved to record on his 35mm Kodachrome slide film. He never felt the process to be dull or tedious, however, for it was a journey of intense exploration and discovery.

In a segment of the film Wynn Bullock: Photographer by Thom Tyson, Dad described his experience this way: "It was such close-up work. You couldn't identify the glass, but by being that close and out of focus, all kinds of strange and beautiful optical shapes and effects would form in space. To me that's real, that's no illusion. I could move one of these little pieces and it would change the whole character of the picture. I used every kind of light - prismatic light, lights under, lights to the side…. I could move the lamp, I could move the light underneath - I could control the form of the optical image. I wouldn't use them all at the same time, I would just use them creatively. It was a very experimental period, a very exciting period."

Creating light images absorbed most of Dad's creative energies from late 1959 to early 1965, and the image designated as Color Light Abstraction 1017 is one of my personal favorites from that remarkably prolific period in his photographic career.

~ Barbara Bullock-Wilson