It's interesting to consider the assumptions and expectations we bring to the experience of looking at a great photograph. At the very least, we assume that any photograph has a unique relationship to something that we instinctively believe is real and true. This sense of being "true" in certain ways remains even when photographs are skillfully manipulated in the darkroom or digitally composited.

The photograph simply titled Wood, 1972, by Wynn Bullock invites this thought because even though we know that there must be some "reality" to what we are seeing, what that truth could be remains provocative and elusive.

Why does there seem to be an almost fluid motion to what we take to be static wood grain? There is depth and dimensionality to what also appears to be a flat surface. We understand that photographic prints can be tonally altered, but even if this were a masterful painting, the shifting implications of sensual forms would be evocative…. But we are told that this is a photograph of wood, so what we see must have existed in some objective way.

And beyond being enigmatically true, this photograph is astonishingly and, perhaps even disturbingly, beautiful. The potential this image has to be troubling is partly the result of the way our culture has inured us to associate beauty with simple pleasures. The words "art and entertainment" feel more familiar to us than "art and truth".

The possibility of using aesthetics as a method for exploring profound insights into the nature of truth, however, is not unusual. Great philosophers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche recognized long ago that aesthetics and creativity are worthy paths to deeper truths. Unfortunately, in our contemporary world this idea has been obscured by our tendency to assign higher truth value to things that are rational; that respond to the scientific method.

These issues are relevant here because the life and works of Wynn Bullock point in a significantly different direction. He understood that meaningful truths and beauty seldom, if ever, appear on surfaces. In-sight always requires some degree of probing and inquiry; and always implicitly asks the viewer to be open to intuitions and intimations.

For Wynn, being an artist in the fullest sense meant combining the process of creativity with one of philosophical questioning. He loved the fact that looking deeply inspired him to both create and think.

There are two impressions of Wynn Bullock that have tended to restrict a greater understanding and appreciation of him as an artist. The first is that he was a classic California landscape photographer in the tradition of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The second, for those with some exposure to his ideas, is that his photographs illustrate intellectual principles.

What came first for Wynn were lived experiences that caused him to question the nature of reality. The necessity of making art and discussing the implications of what he created came later in the process.

To get a sense of this, imagine the first person who probed the surface of water with a stick and saw it bend. The starting point for all that might follow would be amazement. Was the stick "really" straight or "really" crooked? That person might have wished for a way to share this experience of wonder with others. And if s/he had the gift of skillful rendering, a transformative work of art might be produced.

This perspective helps shift our attention away from this photograph as simply a valued, remarkable artifact. Instead, it encourages us to look at this image as an exquisitely beautiful opportunity to examine our own experiences of what we perceive. Do our perceptions stop at surfaces? Are we even aware that there may be more significant ways of knowing and appreciating the world?

Discussing abstract lines of verse, Allen Ginsberg described how non-conceptual gaps can emerge between words that force the mind to invent "the sensation of existence".

For Wynn, there was an essential distinction between "existence" (being or the world unto itself) and "reality" (appearances or the limited impressions offered to us by our senses).

Masters of certain Tibetan Buddhist lineages offer students what are known as "pointing out instructions" - seemingly simple suggestions for how to examine familiar experiences so that insights of our innate transcendence can become possible.

Wood, 1972, can serve us in a similar fashion, offering evidence that any given moment of time may be experienced as a sensation of existence.

~ Adapted from the essay "Reflections on Wood, 1972" published in the April 2006 issue of The Pacific Center for the Photographic Arts newsletter.   © 2006/2012 Chris Johnson.  All rights reserved.