Offered as a handout at "Wynn Bullock: Insights and Surprises"

Already renowned for the evocative black & white imagery he had created in the early and mid-1950s, Wynn Bullock greatly altered the appearance of his photographs in the fall of 1959. At the time, a friend was experimenting with lenses that were capable of focusing at extremely close range. Bullock became intrigued with the perspective the lenses offered and began experimenting himself. Taking an old 35mm Exakta camera, a simple inexpensive lens and a dual-rail close-up bellows attachment, he constructed his own equipment. Using this modified camera to photograph such things as glass and water very close-up (sometimes as near as 1/16 of an inch), he found he could eliminate the familiar appearance of objects and concentrate on the phenomenon of light itself. Excited by this discovery, Bullock all but stopped making straight black-and-white images and became totally absorbed in creating what he called "color light abstractions" that he recorded on Kodachrome slide film.

As a young boy, Bullock had been strongly attracted by light. Light…baking the desert…blistering bare backs in tomato and wheat fields…filtering through eucalyptus trees…making morning grass and orange blossoms steamy and fragrant. His continuing experiences of its intense heat and brightness, its power to make things appear and disappear, its relation to life and death, made light for him the most profound and fascinating of all natural events.

In the late 1920s, it was light, through the work of the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists, which stimulated his career in photography. Achieving interesting effects with light was the direction Bullock pursued during the late thirties and forties. In Edward Weston's photographs, it was the infinite, subtle qualities of light that helped steer his course toward straight photography. At the beginning of 1950s, as he related to nature in new ways and began seeing things as space/time events, the significance of light became even more profound for him. Photographing in the early and middle fifties, he was aware of light as an event inherent in and affecting all other events. When he recognized the potential of close-up photography and began making color light abstractions at the end of the fifties, he knew he had found the means to explore light more deeply and powerfully than he had ever done before.

Bullock made color light abstractions for about five years. During that time, his involvement and excitement were intense. For many hours each 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 chair. 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 three or more photofloods, spotlights positioned at different heights, and a prism or two, Bullock 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 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, 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. The most valuable item in his collection was a box filled with 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 top layer of his apparatus.

After arranging a selection of the other materials on the lower layers of clear glass, Bullock would watch closely through the ground glass of his camera as he moved things around, adding a piece here, taking something away there, increasing the brightness of illumination from one direction, changing its position from another, and controlling the in-and-out of focusing process. Forming and transforming images in this way, he created his light abstractions. By the clock, it was time-consuming work, for only occasionally would all the elements combine into a picture that was "right" for him. He never felt it to be dull or tedious, however, for the world of light expressed his deepest feelings and beliefs about life.

Taken out of context, it might seem as though Bullock's Color Light Abstractions were a radical departure from the mainstream of his work. In relation to the overall arc of his creative life, however, it is obvious they were not. There are distinct similarities between Bullock's black and white photographs of light forms during the late thirties and early forties and his color images of the sixties. During both periods, he used the process of abstraction. This allowed him to cut through the obscurity that familiarity can breed and achieve new levels of perception. Through abstraction, he was able to express light directly as an entity in its own right. Light itself and not something it illuminated was the subject matter on which he focused.

Bullock's earlier abstract light images, however, were just a beginning. Emerging from the experiences and understandings manifested in his photographs of the fifties, Bullock's capacities for exploration were much deeper and fuller in the sixties. He had come to believe that light had the greatest space/time dimensions of any event in the universe. For him, it became the embodiment of change - of the energy, vigor, fluidity, and continuity of life. This expansion of his experience and conceptualization of light was matched by an extension of his technical knowledge and ability. By using close-up photography and working in full color with materials that transmitted and refracted light as well as reflected it, Bullock was able to much more deeply and meaningfully symbolize light as the universally fundamental event he was experiencing it to be. There is also a clear, strong connection between his abstract color imagery of the sixties and the last body of black and white abstract images he produced in the early 1970s, but that is another story.

Because of his profound feelings for light and his belief that he was able to successfully extend and express his experiences of it, Bullock included his color light abstractions in what he considered to be his most significant and satisfying work. In almost all the images, light forms emerge from unfathomable darkness. Their colors have a clarity and vividness, a diversity and subtlety, that can only be described as living. In some of the images, the forms are ethereal; in others, they are more substantial. Some have a feeling of gravity, others a feeling of weightlessness. In all, there is a profound sense of depth and movement, of energy and life, of the force and the flow between being and becoming at all levels of existence from the cosmic to the infinitesimal.

The last of Bullock's color light abstraction slides are dated January 1965. His decision to stop making them emerged in large part from his feelings of personal success that, throughout his creative career, had always urged him to seek new challenges. For him, color had helped express the beauty, richness and potency of light as a living force. Abstract images had enabled him to get close to the essence of universal qualities. By choosing not to symbolize recognizable object-events - for example, a crocus announcing the coming of spring - and by symbolizing instead a rainbow of color forms bursting through the darkness, surging upward and vibrating with energy, Bullock felt he was able to evoke more directly and intensely the qualities which both pictures could represent.

There were also production problems. Bullock's cubbyhole of a darkroom was not equipped to handle color and work had to be sent out to be developed. Whenever he wanted to make a print from a color transparency, he was forced to request use of a commercial facility over a hundred miles from his home. Further, the color processing technology that was available to him in the early 1960s did not allow him to produce stable prints. These production limitations dramatically curtailed conventional exhibition possibilities. Although he shared the work as projected slides, this was not an effective vehicle for dissemination either.

A third, albeit minor, factor in his readiness to move on had to do with the limited responses he got from some people to his abstract color imagery. Instead of stimulating new understandings of light and life, sometimes the images were seen simply as "pretty color pictures". Other people seemed unable to go beyond the stories the abstract images called forth in them - "There's a big fish chasing a little fish through an underwater cave" or "It's a volcano erupting and pouring lava into the valley below." Such projections and associations are natural kinds of responses and can represent meaningful links to the images. Although Bullock also enjoyed the stories the images evoked for him, he didn't let those stories inhibit other levels of interaction and response. His imagery was far ahead of its time in this respect and it seems as though it's taken the scientific, technological, philosophical, and spiritual developments of the past half-century to create a broad enough perspective for his color light abstractions to be more fully understood and appreciated as they are now beginning to be.

Although Bullock returned to black and white photography in the mid-1960s, he never lost interest in his abstract color photographs. He continued to hope for improvements in printing and display technologies that would allow him to share the work in ways and at levels of quality that were satisfactory to him. He dreamed about self-contained projectors that could present the images as transparencies lit from behind or as revolving light shows. He thought about selling sets of slides that could be used in regular projectors but was daunted by the logistics of such a project. And he longed for an affordable, accessible process that would enable him to make the beautiful, stable prints he envisioned for the work. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see any of this happen. He did, however, express the strong wish that his family would eventually find ways to make the imagery widely available. That wish is now finally being fulfilled.

~ Barbara Bullock-Wilson

(Parts of this essay were excerpted from the book Wynn Bullock, Photography: A Way of Life, text by Barbara Bullock-Wilson, Morgan & Morgan, Inc., Dobbs Ferry, NY, 1973.)

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