Up close and personal: Consistency and innovation in your work

Smooch baby face, Ibiza, 1987
Smooch baby face, Ibiza, 1987

Hardening of the categories causes art disease…

W. Eugene Smith

Coney Island. Flowers. City streets. Shells. Rodin sculptures. Abstract architecture. Draftees. Butterflies. Over the years I have allowed my creative appetite to taste many different subjects in both black and white and color and have employed diverse tools and methods in shooting and printing. I used only two lenses for my black and white work, a 35mm and an 100mm. I set my camera to automatic exposure and f16 (presuming it was sunny), and then clicked fast and often. Now I use my scanner as a camera to look closely in to the face of a flower. In the early 1980’s after years of black and white, I began holding flowers up to the sky and snapping. Later I attached a kaleidoscopic lens to my Olympus and wandered the streets of New York seeing the architectural wonders that surrounded me as if for the first time. Over the years I often created montages using up to nine negatives in the darkroom at a time when any form of manipulation was frowned upon. In other ways I was a purist when I was much younger, refusing to join Steichen’s Family of Man show because it was a themed show and I thought that photography should speak for itself. (Yes, I regret that!) We all have contradictions within us that are bound to come out in our photography and philosophy! It’s a road we’re walking in our own way. Learning. Groping.

Pink Rununculus, 2002
Pink Rununculus, 2002

My basic instruction to my students has always been: “When your mouth drops open, click the shutter.” Sometimes new things are going to come in to view that make your mouth drop open, or new ideas. The journey may take you in many directions, as it has for me. Or, you may be continually drink from the same well and find all your creative fulfillment there. Yet, no matter how many paths your photography takes, you will begin to recognize the thread that weaves through it; which is your personality, your vision, your sensibilities. This is your photographic signature.

Nautilus, 1982
Nautilus, 1982

This summer I had a wonderful visit from Lynda Hartigan, Senior Curator of the Peabody Essex Museum. She spent three hours looking carefully through all of my bodies of work — both black and white and color. It was a joy for me to have someone like Lynda look at everything, since most people just want to see one thing. (And that’s fine too). After looking at everything, she posed the question:

“What is it that ties all these diverse bodies of work together?…I think it’s all about getting up close and personal.”

Rodin's Comtesse Anna De Noailles, 1988,
Rodin’s Comtesse Anna De Noailles, 1988,

My own word was “intimacy”. Intimacy in a photograph isn’t always about being literally close up, though it often does for me. It means conveying the deep emotional involvement of the viewer with the subject. Some landscape photographs that encompass vast sweeps of space are intimate portraits of a place deeply loved by the viewer. Regardless of the subject, intimacy is an invitation to come in closer with one’s senses and emotions. It is a way of being at home in the world and bearing witness to the beauty that surrounds us. For me, it is a way of celebrating the ordinary everyday details of our lives that are often over-looked. That’s my particular signature.

The other thing that got me thinking about this was a review I read recently about a wonderful exhibition happening at the High Museum in Atlanta entitled Wynn Bullock: Revelations, a full retrospective of the master photographer. I admired Bullock’s work when I was a young guy just starting out, but it wasn’t until A.D. Coleman curated a two man show at See+ Gallery in Beijing of Bullock’s work and my own that I became more familiar and appreciative of his work. In writing about the exhibit, Coleman shared some of the intersections between Bullock’s work and my own even though our imagery is distinctly different. Among the things he noted was our exploration within different forms and approaches to our work. Yet, for some curators, diversity can be mystifying. Bullock’s best known work is his classical black and white, but he was also drawn to express his vision through solarization, reticulation, negative reversals, photograms and an ingenious process of working with light shining through multiple layers of glass with different viscous substances on them producing remarkable color light abstractions. In reviewing the exhibition, Anderson Scott, writing for ArtsATL.com speculates on why Bullock’s work has faded from prominence in recent decades (a fact which, thankfully, seems to be changing now).

Child in Forest, 1951, Wynn Bullock ©2014 Biullock Family Photography
Child in Forest, 1951, Wynn Bullock ©2014 Biullock Family Photography
Photogram, 1950, Wynn Bullock ©2014 Bullock Family Photography
Photogram, 1950, Wynn Bullock ©2014 Bullock Family Photography

Perhaps one of the reasons that Bullock slipped from prominence is that his work is damn hard to categorize. He went back and forth between abstract darkroom experiments to lush landscapes. Furthermore, he did not evolve over time from one genre to the other. He apparently would make beautiful black and white pictures of nudes in redwood forests one day, and make color abstractions using a home-built contraption with lights and filters the next. Bullock has no easy-to-explain progression, and no simple, snappy hook on which to hang a critical assessment. I suspect that this, as much as anything, caused curators and critics to shy away from him. The High is to be commended for tackling his work in all its complexity.

Color light abstraction 1073, Wynn Bullock, ©2014 Bullock Family Photography
Color light abstraction 1073, Wynn Bullock, ©2014 Bullock Family Photography

I, too, applaud the High Museum for showing Bullock’s full spectrum of work. While Scott’s overall assessment of curatorial shyness is probably accurate, he seems baffled that an artist would be able to move from one modality to the next within the course of a day. But creative flow and creative curiosity are not neatly packaged into discreet bites or “easy-to-explain” progressions for the convenience of others. Bullock was an insatiable innovator and free spirit — a man deeply interested in scientific concepts and the exploration of time, space and light. He took his cues not only from the visual, but the imaginal. He imagined particular aesthetics and set about trying to express them. What would this be like? Thus, he was staying true to what inspired him even if others could not understand it. There are countless ways to honor your own vision. My goal as a teacher has always been to liberate students from the inner and outer constraints of critics and categories.

So… what’s the thread weaving through your work?

Hands on back,  Coney Island, 1974
Hands on back, Coney Island, 1974

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Bravo Harold,
The last thing that should happen in art is to be Pigeonholed, we have been discussing this in different forums. Many of todays photographers worry about changing their work for fear of losing collectors, or clients. Our thought is we all need to evolve..
Best you and yours,
C.R and J.R.

Kaethe W.

Dear Harold: As ever, I love your blog. I thought I might add a note about intimacy. I have a long theory paper on the subject, the essence of which is that intimacy consists of intimate interactions in which we are able to co-create meaning with others, verbally or non-verbally. I think your photographs bring the viewer into the co-creation of meaning that has happened between you and your subjects and opens us to doing the same, drawing on our own storehouse of sensory, perceptual and conceptual meanings. As ever, I am enriched by your insights, photographs and the generosity… Read more »

Pat Schuver

Would love to read some of that poetry…when I was young, 16 years old and I am 65 now, I took the poem IF by Rudyard Kipking and put it to music with my guitar…I won a talent contest once with it…now I see on youtube, others have done the same since…I too love flowers and photograph them, but nothing like you…You are amazing and definitely capture the emotion…if you have time here is a link to my FB page of albums if you would like to check them out…my timeline album has the most current…I will never be the… Read more »

Andi Alexander

Recently I posted a question on Rfoto Forum which has been answered here. A perfect answer to the question, “How do you decide on a “body” of work?”

Well, from this lovely and extensive post I understand it just a bit better. And how indeed satisfying it is to look back through one’s work and see the thread that links it all. The thread that in fact says – here you are!! This is what you love and here is the evidence of it.

Allan MacGregor

Ah, Harold, I am always so grateful when your blog reaches my computer because I know it will be a wonderful antidote to the mundane desiccants of daily routines and commitments and refresh me with a vivifying quaff of the juice of creative appreciation!
Thanks for introducing me to Bullock’s work. I can see why Coleman put you both into one exhibition! Hugs from Mexico! Allan

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