Commentary by Barbara Bullock-Wilson

In the late 1940s, our family moved from the travel trailer in which we had been living into a newly built ranch-style house on the north side of Carmel Hill in the middle of the Monterey Peninsula. Although it was only a modest two-bedroom, one-bath dwelling with a detached one-car garage, it felt very expansive and, as a bonus, it had a distant view of Monterey Bay.

Instead of sleeping in a pulled-out drawer on the floor, I now had a bedroom with closets and a dresser and room to play. Rather than having to walk outside to use a public bathhouse, there was a spacious tub just for us a few feet down the hall. Mom had a kitchen big enough to actually walk around in, and Dad had a darkroom he could call his own.

Built onto the back of the garage, the darkroom was separated from the house by two sets of outdoor stairs. Measured in feet instead of inches, it was not much larger than the 8 x 10 prints Dad produced there. But size is relative, and the space was a whole world unto itself.

As soon as you stepped over the threshold, you were enveloped in black. With rustic homemade counters and shelves, it had an unfinished, elemental character. It hummed with the energy of possibility. At the same time, the absorbing work done within its walls gave it a reassuring center. Along with an aura of mystery and excitement, you felt a sense of peace and contentment.

That combination was irresistible, and as a young child I loved going down to the darkroom with Dad. He would set me on a high stool near the round metal washer where I could dip my fingers in the cool water as new prints slowly swirled around and where I waited for the signal to depress the plunger when the washer was ready to be drained. What I liked best of all, though, was simply sitting in the quiet darkness, watching Dad go about his work and sharing magic with him.

As I grew older, I began to have a fuller appreciation of what that magic represented and what a large role his darkroom work played in his image-making.

In 1977, just a couple of years after my father's death, a book titled Darkroom was released by Lustrum Press. Edited by Eleanor Lewis and dedicated to the memory of Dad, the publication contained 13 chapters, each one spotlighting various aspects of a prominent photographer's craft.

Like Dad, most of the other twelve photographers included in Darkroom were interviewed and their spoken words edited into chapter form. Through a conversational format, the editor's goal was to convey not only technical information regarding each artist's equipment, materials, and darkroom practices, but aesthetic and emotional attitudes as well.

The chapter on Dad began with the following paragraph:

"From the beginning I have placed great emphasis on the fact that darkroom work is an important element in the creative photographic process. When photographing I become so involved in what I'm perceiving that I have to force myself to think of technique. I use a Weston meter, take a high and low reading, and bracket my exposures. My negatives aren't always what they should be, but that's the way it is."

To illustrate both his attitudes and his practices, Dad talked about four photographs: Child in Forest, 1951; Point Lobos Tide Pool, 1957; Log and Horsetails, 1957; and our featured image Stark Tree, 1956.

Revealing his strong convictions toward darkroom work, he explained:

"In printing, I don't want to distort the reality of the image, but I don't want to distort the reality of my feelings for it either. The two go hand in hand. I have no qualms about altering the image by burning and dodging. I'm not a purist in that way. I am a purist in that I don't want the manipulation to show. As soon as it does, the magic is destroyed.

"A perfect example of this is the print of the Stark Tree. I passed that place on a mountain freeway maybe a dozen times and never wanted to take a picture. But one day the clouds, the atmospheric feeling of the scene, appealed to me. I got out of my car, set up the 8 x 10 camera and shot straight into the sun. I knew I was going to have a terrible problem with contrast, shooting into the sun with the deep shadow of the hill below it. I went ahead and photographed anyway, because it's something I felt."

Dad went on to detail what he had to do in the darkroom to produce the photograph he wanted, the print that expressed all he had to share about his experience that day along the highway. As important as darkroom work was to his image-making, however, it was always in the service of something more fundamental and his chapter ended with these thoughts:

"I rate the development of a fine technique as 25 percent book and instructional training and 75 percent 'eye' training.

"Tone, balance, and other visual senses are all part of 'eye' training. If one has a keen sense of what is needed in a picture, one has to know how to get it. But if you know a lot of technique and don't have a sense of direction, the technique is useless. Picture sense only comes with the development of one's own faculties. Except to a limited degree, it can't be learned from books or teachers. Nature, from whence all things come, cannot be packaged in neat little academic boxes to be opened as needed.

"Space, time, opposites, reality, existence, ordering, and the thing ordered have become principle-theories which I have come to believe in through my years of work. They have become supportive, not alone to my photography, but to my life in general. They developed from my contacts with nature and have been later substantiated by reading the writings of great philosophers and scientists. I have subjected them to endless visual tests only to find their meaning enhanced. They are tools of thought that have permitted me to grow visually and to have the foundation of a way of life."

It is to this process that Stark Tree and all of Dad's other images owed their true beginnings. And it is the process that provided the motivation for Dad to hone and exercise his craft as best he could. Throughout his photographic career, he dedicated himself to developing his own "picture sense" and as a result his darkroom became a place where creativity thrived and astonishing magic happened time and again.

Quoted passages from the book Darkroom, edited by Eleanor Lewis, © 1977 Lustrum Press, New York.
Text © 2017 Barbara Bullock-Wilson. All rights reserved.