Film photography and darkroom practices

A Philosopher’s Photographer: Wynn Bullock

As a life-long learner and a ‘mature’ (i.e. old) student of Philosophy I find much to appreciate in the pictures and words of Wynn Bullock. Alongside Minor White, a more thought-provoking photographer you will struggle to find.

“Searching is everything – going beyond what you know. And the test of the search is really in the things themselves, the things you seek to understand. What is important is not what you think about them, but how they enlarge you“. 1

Introduction

It is rare and refreshing to find a photographer who is so widely engaged in thinking as Bullock. 2 Most photographers that I know or read about seem to shun an intellectual conversation about photography. I find this odd given that pictures and words are both about expression. 3 Bullock spent a lot of his time thinking about three ideas in relation to his photography: Essences, Symbols and Events.

Wynn Bullock

The ‘Essence’ of things

Bullock has been characterised by his quest for the ‘essence’ of things through photographic excavation, reminding us of Kant’s distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances. 4. I can find no on-line reference that Bullock read Kant, but a number of statements that Bullock made suggest that he was familiar with the main thrust of the Critique of Pure Reason 5.

According to Kant we can never experience the ‘essence’ of things because our cognition is made up of more than the simple sense-data from those things. Our way of cognizing already individuates things in a certain way so that we can experience them. So we can only get to the appearances of things, not to the things-in-themselves.

I think that such distinctions between things-in-themselves and appearances are mis-guided. So I do not subscribe to Bullock’s quest in these terms as it is philosophically non-sensical.

Symbols

Bullock also thought that ‘Reality’ is made up of symbols and that therefore the medium of photography with its one-to-one rendering of scenes is best placed to make sense of these symbols. Here I partly agree with him. I don’t think I have ever come across a satisfactory definition of ‘real’ but I do think that symbols are important in how we perceive the world.

Actually I would go further. I think pictures are like signs which occupy the same spaces as predicates in in well-formed sentences. This idea, first put forward by the American philosopher Peirce, enables us to think in terms of pictures and language being inextricably linked.

Events

Finally, and I think he was onto something here, Bullock learned to look at objects as ‘events’. Recognising that there are three space dimensions of time as well as a time dimension helped Bullock to see more acutely. He was fond of quoting Alfred North Whitehead:

Not only is the world more mysterious and queer than you think it is, but it’s queerer than you can think it is’.

A.N Whitehead

We can only speculate whether Bullock was familiar with Whitehead’s ontology of process and relations.

Final Words

When I look at Bullock’s pictures I see a photographer who had a keen sense of knowing how to see. It was as if he was able to go beyond the concepts that supposedly frame how we normally perceive things. I think this thought would have delighted him.

I finish with a beautiful You-Tube video of some of his pictures.

  1.  Published and unpublished writings of Wynn Bullock, compiled by his daughter Barbara Bullock-Wilson
  2. viz: “Theoretical scientists who probe the secrets of the universe and philosophers who seek answers to existence, as well as painters such as Paul Klee who find the thoughts of men of science compatible with art, influence me far more than most photographers.” (Interview)
  3. It’s not good enough to simply say that ‘a picture tells its own story’. It just doesn’t because the context principle always applies. Indeed I would go further: language is indispensable to the experience of a picture. Visual experience or ‘picturing’ is inside of language, not outside of it. But this is a matter best left for another post.
  4. ‘ Differentiating what he termed “reality”, the visible and the known, from “existence”, the underlying truth of things, (Bullock) was ceaseless in his attempts to expand his own faculties of perception and understanding so he could come ever closer in his experiences to the essence of things’ – see Wikipedia entry
  5. For example Bullock refers to the ‘storehouse of concepts’ through which we perceive objects. He also latches onto the importance of space and time to the perceiving act. The interview with Bullock by Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper suggests that Bullock was an idealist – see ‘Dialogue with Photography, Interviews by Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper, 2018 Dewi Lewis, pp 254

2 Comments

  1. Robin Jones

    I am no philosopher and reading your posts challenges and informs ideas which bounce around in my head about photography ,for which I have no ‘tools’ to rationalise intellectually. Interested in your thoughts on the relationship between pictures and language.

    • Sidewayseye

      Thanks for stopping by Robin. Thank you for your interest. I don’t find many photographers who care much about philosophy.

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