Commentary by Barbara Bullock-Wilson

This image is one of my father's most published, exhibited, and collected photographs. Like Let There Be Light, another of Dad's iconic images, it bears an atypical title.

Ordinarily, Dad identified his images with short, plain descriptors such as "Child in Forest", "The Shore", and "Wood". If he had followed his customary pattern with this month's Featured Image, he most likely would have called it "Mother and Baby" or "Baby on Bed" or simply "Untitled". He didn't, however, and therein lies an interesting story.

The photograph Navigation without Numbers was made at a ranch high atop Partington Ridge in the heart of Big Sur country. The owner of the ranch was an eccentric medical doctor and avid anthropologist of Spanish and Native American heritage named Jaime de Angulo. Rarely there, Jaime relied on Sandy Justice to manage the ranch in his absence. After Jaime died in 1950, Sandy stayed on as caretaker.

Sandy was a gentle giant of a man with a bushy beard, a penchant for cheap wine, and a soft heart for people in need. On any given visit, you never knew how many people might be staying at the ranch, supported mostly by Sandy's generous spirit. No matter how limited his financial resources, he always had enough to share.

Dad was introduced to Sandy by a mutual friend and the two men took an instant liking to each other. Although Sandy had banned all photographers from the ranch, along with anyone else he didn't warm to and trust, Dad had an open invitation to come and photograph whether Sandy was there or not.

Sometime in the mid-1950s, on one of his weekly treks to the Monterey Peninsula to stock up on groceries and replenish his stores of cigarettes and jug wine, Sandy came across a young woman wandering the town streets. She was newly pregnant, homeless, and unsure where she was going to find her next meal. Sandy brought her back to Big Sur, offering her a refuge where she could rest in relative peace and safety.

A gentle, quiet woman, Marilyn slipped easily into the unconventional, laid-back rhythms of life at the ranch. In Dad, she found another accepting soul, and she began modeling for him to earn a bit of money. Marilyn with Cat, 1956 is one of a series of images made before her baby was born. Marilyn and Baby #1, 1957 and Marilyn and Baby #2, 1957 are among the more intimate portraits produced after the baby's birth.

On the day Navigation without Numbers was created, Dad had been haunted by the premonition that Marilyn was going to have to give up her child one day. Although loving and tender in the care of her son, she had little else to offer him and meeting life's challenges had proved daunting for her.

During a rest break from her work with Dad, Marilyn had nursed her baby and then had put him down for a nap in the middle of the large, black-blanketed bed. She had settled herself at the side of the bed, waiting for Dad to return from reloading his camera.

When he walked into the room, it seemed as though his premonition had materialized right in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a book propped up on a wide window ledge. The title of it was Navigation without Numbers. Making sure the book and a glimpse of the sunlight from the bedroom window would be in the picture, he quickly set up his equipment and exposed his film.

Although Dad couldn't predict what the future would actually hold for Marilyn and her baby, he recognized that the scene before him held a gamut of possibilities and that both mother and child would chart a course through the unknown as best they could.

The book's cover words "Navigation without Numbers" embodied what he deeply felt that day and, even though it represented a departure from his usual practice, he knew there was no other title more appropriate for his image.

Text © 2017 Barbara Bullock-Wilson. All rights reserved.