CACTUS, 1958

Commentary by Paul Cotter

If someone asked you to create a photograph that shows Love, what would you shoot? There are countless views that have become so familiar, they're part of our visual vocabulary: couples embracing ... a mother cradling her newborn baby ... two old hands touching gently ... a mama dog feeding her hungry pups.

All of these speak to love. And all of them, in one way or another, are variations of interpretations we've seen before. If this were jazz or classical music, we could say they're different riffs on a familiar theme - a melody we've heard over and over again.

When Wynn Bullock was asked to submit a photograph for a 1950s exhibition on Love, he refused to settle for a variation on a familiar tune. He wanted his image to represent a fresh new interpretation, a whole new melody, something that challenges us to encounter love in a deeper, more expansive way.

And so, in his typical intrepid spirit, he submitted the image you see here: Cactus, 1958.

When you first study this photograph, you might appreciate it as an artful abstract - an intriguing macro look at the plant world, a masterful use of shapes, tones and textures. But Love? Where is the Love?

Look again. And let's start with the obvious. When Wynn Bullock saw this cactus, he recognized the striking resemblance to a certain part of the human anatomy - a part that is the very cradle of birth and life. In his notes accompanying the negative, he wrote: "Phallic and life symbol. Good."

But if we think this photograph is simply a clever anatomical pun, we're missing a profound underlying message. Like the cactus plant itself, Bullock's work is characterized by layers, layers which must be peeled back to arrive at the core of his intent.

For Bullock, this cactus can teach us everything we need to know about the essence of love, the struggle for survival, the life force which flows through every being in the universe. He saw the outer leaf protecting the tender inner leaf, he saw the graceful shape of wings, and he understood. Through this photograph, he hoped we would understand too.

Wynn Bullock's daughter Barbara described her father's unique way of seeing when she told me, "We typically think of a cactus as prickly and hard. We don't think of a cactus as nurturing and tender - but he did."

With its thought-provoking simplicity, it's easy to see why Cactus, 1958 was one of the curators' favorite choices for the Love exhibit - and why it was also included in The Sense of Abstraction international exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1960.

Text 2019 Paul Cotter. All rights reserved.