Coming into the Light

Bullock's color abstractions cap a Bullock retrospective at CCP

"Light to me is perhaps the most profound truth in the universe," photographer Wynn Bullock once said.

Late in his long career, after a lifetime of chasing light and pinning it down in black and white photos, Bullock found a purer way to capture it. In color.

His "Color Light Abstractions" from the early 1960s are lovely paeans to hue and shape. Projected fleetingly onto the wall at the Wynn Bullock: Revelations retrospective at the Center for Creative Photography, these never-printed transparencies are as large and lush as abstract paintings, as elusive as melodies, as transient as the spoken word.

"Color Light Abstraction 1075," for one, is a dramatic slash of yellow and blue, set against mysterious black. It suggests a mythical landscape—or a far corner of the universe.

These ephemeral images came about only after intense labor and experimentation. According to notes at the exhibition, Bullock built a vertical contraption with 10 niches to accommodate as many panes of glass. He smeared some of the panes with honey, others with shards of glass, still others with colored cellophane. Then he aimed floodlights and spotlights at the glittering colors and photographed not the physical panes but their colored refractions in space.

Many of these images have only recently come to light. They existed only as transparencies intended for projection onto walls, and they were stored away and nearly forgotten. Now scanned and blessed with a new digital life, they form a mesmerizing slide show at the end of the show.

Organized chronologically, this big traveling exhibition from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has more than 100 of his photos from the 1930s to the 1970s, all of them demonstrating that he never stopped experimenting.

Bullock (1902 to 1975), a renowned artist whose work was one of the five founding archives at the Center, didn't start out as a photographer. He began his professional life as a singer, performing in New York and then in Paris, Berlin and Milan in the late '20s. It was in Europe that he was seduced by the visual arts, especially the cutting-edge work of László Moholy-Nagy, a painter and photographer, and Man Ray, a multi-genre "pre-surrealist."

Dazzled by their adventurous work—as well as the light-filled paintings of the 19th century Impressionists—Bullock bought a camera and started shooting.

From the beginning, he took chances. The earliest works on display, all in black and white, show off a variety of photographic tricks that turn the work toward surrealism. Sometimes he would wrinkle the negative to create odd abstract patterns in the print. Or, following his lifelong interest in light, he would use "solarization," a technique that could reverse the tones in an image and set them blazing like the sun.

"Solarized Nude," 1939, pictures the head and torso of a reclining woman whose skin glows like neon. Similarly, the solarized "Boxer," 1941, seems to be burning with an internal fire; licks of light radiate from his back and feet. Bullock always intended to "jolt his viewer out of complacency," the curators tell us. "Barbara and Plants," 1955, a nude with flowers, does exactly that. The woman is posed against an empty white space, but you can't tell if she's lying prone on the floor or leaning against a wall or somehow just floating in space. Making this surrealist scene even more confusing, the branches of a flowering tree curl daintily over her hair.

Even when he turned to landscape, following the path of his friend Edward Weston, Bullock didn't just make lovely views. He crammed thick stands of trees in dark forests into claustrophobic picture planes ("space is as much about fullness as it is about absence," he'd say). Or he would aim his camera at weird angles so that a viewer couldn't tell what was up and what was down. The plants in "Sea Palms," 1968, look like full-sized trees on stony hills, but they're not. Actually, we're told, they're tiny kelp plants struggling to maintain a foothold on tidal rocks.

Some of Bullock's most entertaining sleights of hand are still lifes of natural objects with humanoid features. A sliced-open apple from 1953, its seeds gazing out like two eyes, seems to smile, and the ridges in a lovely etched tree trunk from 1972 trace out a voluptuous female shape (a favorite Bullock subject).

For a beautiful series shot in old cabins and barns, Bullock often aimed the camera out the window, where a ghostly figure might unexpectedly appear ("Nude Behind Cobwebbed Window," 1955). Or gorgeous, mystical light might pour down through the holes between the rafters.

Bullock's single most famous image is "Let There Be Light," a spectacular 1954 view of the sun and sea. It was selected by photographer and MOMA director Edward Steichen for The Family of Man, a landmark exhibition that opened at MOMA in 1955 and traveled the world for eight years. At its stop in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., visitors voted it the most outstanding photo in the massive show.

The lovely image, which made Bullock's reputation, meshed with the show's message of hope in the years after history's deadliest conflict, World War II. The tiny photo, just 7 ½ inches square, is edged in black—black skies, black seas. But the night is breaking into day, and a brilliant sun is rising. It casts its light on the dark waters, and its bright rays beam across the tides, from the distant horizon to the shining shore.

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