PRINT October 1963


Wynn Bullock at Toren Gallery

PARANOIA IS THE OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE of photography—creative photographers most of all. Their position in the art world is that of unloved stepchildren; the status of the best of them is some­what beneath your dear old Aunt Millie who paints beautiful Venetian scenes in black velvet, ever so artistic, and all by hand. Generally ignored by art shows (“open to works in all media” never means to include photographs), insuited by his well-meaning friends (“why don’t you give up this mechanical toy and do something creative?”), the photographer tends to become crotch­ety and evil-tempered; he loses perspec­tive. He looks around at the non-objec­tive paintings hanging on museum walls, and thinks to himself, “So what’s so great about that? I can do it just as well.” And he forgets the inexorable tie with reality that is the essence and challenge of photography. He plays painter.

Wynn Bullock, a competent and well­-regarded photographer, a man who should certainly know better, has fallen into this trap. His prints––it is ques­tionable whether they can be called photographs––imitate the external ap­pearance of abstract-expressionism; they are multi-colored and non-repre­sentational. But they are failures for two important reasons. In the first place, Bullock is trying to do with a camera something which the camera is not designed to do; and in the second place, considered as serigraphs or color lithographs, which they approach in conception, they are not particularly interesting.

This is not to say that abstraction has no place in photography, but ab­straction in photography springs from an entirely different source than ab­straction in painting. Abstraction in painting is an expression of the inner spirit of the painter. Abstraction in photography is the recording by the camera of what the photographer per­ceives as the essential design which reinforces the reality of the object. It may be an unfamiliar reality––the de­sign of wood structure seen under the microscope, the design of the land­scape revealed by a high-altitude cam­era, a plant form isolated by Harry Callahan, a weathered rock by Aaron Siskind, Jason Hailey’s peeling paint. It is an honest expression of the med­ium of photography and of the function of the photographer––to pre-visualize his print.

Abstraction in photography has often been confused with manipulation of the photographic process to create de­signs which have no reality or a dis­torted reality, and here the purist would turn his back and refuse to call the designs photographs at all. Design prints appear regularly in advertise­ments, or on package designs such as record albums and book jackets, and they are rooted in the early experiments of such men as Man Ray and Moholy­-Nagy, whose ingenuity in manipulating the photographic process led to a re­markable range of prints, as well as in the German-inspired school of “Sub­jektive Photographie.” Some of these prints, photographs or not, make an ex­citing visual experience. For the photo­graphic process may be infinitely modified––increased contrast, juxtaposition of images, solarization, to name a few––but the photographic process is here treated as a handcraft, not as a tool to probe reality. There is actually no rea­son why one should not make “Sumi drawings” by painting on photographic paper with developer.

It is in this dubious area of photog­raphy that many mistakes are made. Photographers seek to gain status by imitating painters, generally abstract­expressionists (I have yet to see a photographic imitation of Barnett New­man or Ad Reinhardt). They create a pseudo-world which they photograph, and the nature of their work is thus no longer photographic but painterly. Bul­lock’s rejection of reality is not accom­panied by sufficient design sense to make the prints exciting. His colors are brash; his forms are forgettable. His prints have the tentative look of the canvases abandoned in the corridors of the San Francisco Art Institute by students who have found to their sur­prise that abstract-expressionism is not as easy as it looks.

Photographs of this kind are success­ful only when they spring from a play­ful imagination that uses the camera whimsically and lightly to create high-­style designs. Bullock, unfortunately, is taking himself seriously.

––Margery Mann