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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Visionary from the Past

Wynn Bullock — A Way of Life

A short story: My personal adventure in photography started in high school and a biology class. I was doing a project on microscopic protozoa and needed to be able to photograph them. After a few failed attempts, I signed up for a beginning photography class. One of my first assignments was to go to the library and select a photographer and book for a book report. I selected the newly published Scrimshaw Press book titled Wynn Bullock. My life changed forever and here I am fifty years later, still learning about photography and still admiring the work of the previous generations. But I can honestly say, If it weren't for Wynn Bullock, I'd probably be a tax accountant. Or maybe a garbage hauler.

Fast forward just a few years. In the mid-1970s, my maternal grandfather passed away in his home in Salinas, California. The family convened there for the funeral and a few days later, we all decided a day in Carmel might be the break from solemnity we needed. I knew there were photography galleries there and was anxious to see some original photographs. I wandered into the Photography West Gallery where a nice woman (whose name I've now forgotten) replied to my question, "Yes, we have a number of Wynn Bullock prints. Which would you like to see?" I tentatively said, "All of them?" She pulled out a dozen or so prints and left me on my own to spend as much time with them as I wanted — and I wanted eternity.

Every print was breathtaking, every print was unique — but a relatively new image that wasn't in the Scrimshaw Press book so I wasn't familiar with it titled Point Lobos Tide Pools, 1972, was mesmerizing. I literally could not take my eyes off of it. I was gently asked to leave at closing time, and only then did I realize I'd been looking at this one print for just over 2 hours. I simply could not figure it out. Why was it so mysterious? Why did I have such a strong response to it? The more I thought about it, the more the mystery deepened. Only when I interviewed Edna Bullock (Wynn's widow) and Barbara Bullock-Wilson (Wynn's daughter) some 20+ years later did I learn that he purposely presented this image upside down — which causes a three-dimension inversion of the content of those simple tide pools. Of course, there isn't any magic in the trick of turning an image upside down, but there is magic in recognizing when a visual anomaly creates a powerful emotional impact. The first lesson from Bullock was that he wasn't using photography to make photographs; he used photography to express his ideas.

And that brings us to the even greater lesson and inspiration from Wynn Bullock. I'm not sure if Bullock was a photographer first and a philosopher second, or perhaps the other way around. Bullock was not a "picture taker" he was an image maker. All of his images are grounded in pretty heady philosophical questions — often the recipient of chiding from his fellow Carmel luminaries. There are legendary stories of Bullock going on and on in his photography slide lectures discussing time and space and the philosophy of Korzybski and who-knows-what, providing an opportunity for some of his audience members to catch a desperately needed nap, I'm told. I am inspired not so much by his philosophical musings, but rather by the very fact that he so tightly integrated his photographic and non-photographic life. He demonstrated that photography was not something he did, but something he lived. In fact, his 1972 monograph published by Morgan & Moran is titled Photography: A Way of Life. We've incorporated this phrase into our LensWork mission statement.

For me, the phrase "a way of life" has a specific meaning that is the root of Bullock's influence in my photography. I can best illustrate it this way: In the early 1980s I was frustrated that my obligations to work and family were making my efforts in photography both sporadic and unproductive. I decided I needed a scheduled discipline. Filled with enthusiasm, I thought, "I know, I'll spend every other weekend and two nights a week in the darkroom or out photographing." And then I came to my senses and realized I could never keep up that schedule. I thought I'd spend one weekend a month and one night a week on photography. But that was also aggressive, too. I kept whittling my commitment down until it was one Saturday a month in the darkroom. And then it occurred to me that my creative life would consist of just 12 days a year! For something that was supposedly so important to me, I found this paltry schedule depressing. About the, Bullocks phrase started to haunt me — a way of life. The error in my approach, I discovered, had been to try to separate my photographic life from the rest of my life and treat them as two separate things. The solution was to simply integrate photography into my life and eliminate the compartmentalizing into discrete, dedicated time. I found it was easy to develop the habit of thinking photographically all the time. Yes, there were still times when I needed to focus on photography exclusively, but not as many as I'd thought. I realize that the creative life is not an parallel adjunct to everyday life; it is, to use Bullock's phrase, a way of life. When I interviewed Barbara Bullock in 1998, she confirmed this by telling me that Wynn Bullock's most famous image, Child in Forest, 1951, was photographed during a family picnic. Now that is integrating one's everyday life with the creative life.