Wynn Bullock – and existentialist photography

wbullock - Wynn Bullock - and existentialist photography

Bullock was an American photographer of the 50’s and 60’s whose work was based on physics and philosophy.

 Bullock photography book - 1971    Bullock photography book - 1973

As a fellow ‘existentialist photographer’ – well sort of! I havent reached the level of excellence expected from such a type of photographer yet – I found Bullock’s work absolutely fascinating. It reaches into the physics/philosophy arena, it’s almost a Tao of Photography. That is something few photographers have achieved.

It’s unlike looking at photographs in an ordinary way. One needs to know what Bullock’s intentions were before actually seeing the elements that he wants the viewer to observe.

Bullock photography book - 1984    Bullock photography book - 1984

Now a big question: Was Bullock an existential photographer? It does seem certain that he was, for to be concerned about such matters, indeed to want to find out the real meaning behind the world itself. In a reflexive way it does indicate that Bullock wanted to find out more about his being-in-the-world, or as can be put another way, it begs the question of Heidegger’s Daesin.

Wynn Bullock certainly realised he was a Daesin or a being-in-the-world. Despite starting photography late in life, he realised that a camera could illustrate the world in ways that hadn’t really been thought possible before.

Bullock photography book - 1999  Bullock photography book - 2010

Bullock puts to shame other contemporary photographers of the time, including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, who were members of Group f/64 with a philosophy known as ‘straight photography.’ Bullock had met Weston, but decided that their ‘straight photography’ wasn’t quite sufficient and, for that matter not even existentialist. 

His colour light abstractions were certainly much more than any other straight photographer had hoped for. These images showed us that nature constitutes of many levels of reality. At the time one could not really see these levels of sophisication, so Bullock created these and for the first time people were seeing right into the heart of quantum physics. 

Colour abstraction by Wynn Bullock
Colour light abstractions – clip from the Lumiere Gallery’s video

(Link to the Lumiere Gallery’s video showing Bullock’s excellent colour abstractions.)

I think one thing Heidegger or existentialist philosophy can inform us regarding some photographers – and that is they seem to think they are somewhere else. Their being-in-the-world as photographers is more connected by way of their technology (cameras, lights, lenses) and not the subjects themselves.

Naturally there are many brilliant photographers who can make images leap out by clever use of camera or post-processing tricks, and they do a fantastic job at making portraits leap out before one’s very own eyes – but the point is, there are few who can perform the feat of making images ‘leap out’ before any camera recording. This is probably a distinction the photographic world should make in defining any differences between existentialist/non-existentialist photography.

The earliest photographers were clearly somewhat existentialist. They did not have sophisticated cameras, equipment or studios – hence the subjects had to provide sophistication. Cameras were pointed at the awe of the developing world or the remnants of humanity’s past existences, such as the pyramids – or other grand achievements.

As cameras developed better creative abilities, the sense of one’s being-in-the-world through photography somehow got lost. It was not until we had the decades before the First World War that anyone even had the inkling that just taking photographs was not just about the camera, but about the subject itself.

For those rare photographers of more than a hundred years ago, there was a realisation that photography could be portrayed on many different levels. Their work was said to be existentialist, but since few had heard of existentialism (Kierkegaard hadn’t been dead that long and neither Heidegger or Sartre had begun their investigative journeys) the very idea was missed out altogether and photographers carried on regardless until the idea of photo-journalism emerged.

There are many excellent photographers in the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, such as Robert Capa or Lee Miller. They had some elements of existentialism, or perhaps rather existential dread. Their cameras were the tools of their trade, used to record the horrors of the failures of humanity e.g. the dread produced by the two world wars.

It must be noted at this point that Jean Paul Sartre wrote his most famous work, Being and Nothingness, during the early years of the Second World War. No doubt the nausea generated by the conflicts caused him to think upon, and develop, a whole new way of looking at existence.

Kierkegaard, Bretano, Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre all developed insights into the human condition, however in terms of photography Wynn Bullock is clearly a rarity in this aspect. His work was based upon physics, philosophy, relativity and the effects of light, but also subtly showed the human condition too.

Take Bullock’s photograph, ‘Child on Forest Road’ (1958) which was recently examined in a fellow Tumblr blog – The Existentialist. This image shows a child in small scale and nature large and powerful. The child stands in awe of nature. The child knows it has a place, it has it’s ‘being-in-the-world.’

Child on Forest Road - 1958

For further information on his work, see the Wynn Bullock Photography pages 

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