Controlling Posterity

by David L. Jacobs

Imogen Cunningham: Ideas Without End, Edited by Richard Lorenz, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993 and The Enchanted Landscape: Wynn Bullock, New York: Aperture, 1993

When an important artist dies, family and friends often try to assure her or his ongoing legacy. Those who were closest to the deceased often control the estates, and their decisions can be affected not just by the terms of the will, or the express desires of the deceased, but more elusive elements that linger from their relationships with the artist. The eulogizing impulse can sometimes extend for decades after an individual’s death. To be sure, it is hard to generalize on such matters, since the management of artist’s estates is determined by the nature of the will, to say nothing of the abilities and motives of the executors. One need only think of the very different estate fates or Ansel Adams, Minor White, Diane Arubus, and Brett Weston – to say nothing of Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Cornell, and Andy Warhol – to glimpse the range of possibilities.

Still, it is generally the case that the first wave of posthumous publications, retrospectives, and symposia attempt to place the artist in a defined niche in history, usually undertaken with the kind of enthusiastic energy that precludes critical questioning. The rhetoric of immortality is intended to serve the memory of the life and work of the deceased, even while it is fed out of the needs of those who were left behind. Such efforts are deeply human and, in most cases, deeply felt, but they also are tinged with an unmistakable pathos. We know, on some level, that oblivion is the fate of all but the fewest of us, and that those who are remembered are seen dimly through distorted lenses. I daresay that not a single reader of this essay knows (or cares) which emperor followed Nero. Do you remember the name of Chester Arthur’s vice president? Or, for that matter, anything about Chester Arnold (was he the 13th? 17th?). Today’s household names will, doubtless, rush into oblivion. The histories of art and letters, music and philosophy speak to the current generation’s inability to assure or predict which events or people it will be remembered by. The music of Bach was unperformed for several generations before Mendelssohn re-discovered him, and Arget was the proverbial “anonymous” until Berenice Abbot played the midwife. We may not even know the name of the artists through which our epoch will be remembered 200 years hence.

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Imogen Cunningham and Wynn Bullock lived for many decades within the San Francisco-Carmel corridor that was the seed bed for the West Coast style of art photography. Although both photographers were strongly influenced by Edward Weston, Cunningham’s and Bullock’s oeuvres extend considerably beyond a single aesthetic. For many years Imogen Cunningham was a mainstay in the small art-photography community that fought the good fight for photography’s status as a bona fideart. But it wasn’t until the later 1960s and 70s, when she was adopted by San Francisco’s flower children, that she gained her full measure of renown. Imogen’s octogenarian hipness served as a reminder that the much-discussed “generation gap” wasn’t inevitable. Cunningham was a sprightly presence, whose joie de vivre shone through both in her photography and in her nimble wit. She photographed until the very end of her life, and the years only seemed to heighten her appeal.

Wynn Bullock was no less enamored of photography, though he lived a quieter life in Carmel, within only earshot of the fabled Point Lobos. While his two best-known images were among the most successful in Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition, Bullock was mainly a photographer’s photographer who appealed to a relatively narrow but influential audience through a purist dedication to the medium. He worked closely throughout his career with his wife Edna and their daughter Barbara, who was the model in many of his figure studies, and, later, the author of Wynn Bullock: Photography – a Way of Life, (1973). During the 1960s Bullock struggled in lectures and writings to articulate what he referred to as the “time-space” components of photography. These efforts, driven by extensive readings in various disciplines, were both compelling and frustrating to him.

Although Imogen Cunningham and Wynn Bullock are still well-known figures, there has been noteworthy slippage in their reputations in recent years. Cunningham was the subject of a notable festschrift, Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait, in 1979, and, more recently, a thing volume published by the Clio Press. In 1984 Bullock was the subject of two book-length treatments: a highly forgettable scholarly analysis (Clyde Dilley, The Photography and Philosophy of Wynn Bullock) and a short book on his work with the nude, written by his daughter Barbara (Wynn Bullock: Photographing in the Nude). Both photographers were only sporadically included in major surveys like On the Art of Fixing a Shadow, Photography and Artand The New Vision. In recent years their one-person shows have been small exhibitions centered in or around the West Coast.

Their images are seen by the new generations of photographers as late modernist work born in a different, if not very distant, age. Their highly crafted, formally sophisticated, single frame, black and white images are of not of utmost importance to contemporary photographers or curators, who look to color, installations, mixed media, assemblage, and digital imaging for formal models. Moreover, the full-throated idealism of Cunningham and Bullock may ring hollow in some Postmodern ears. The attitude that most defined Cunningham, Bullock, and many of their photographic contemporaries – their enthusiasm – is perhaps the thing which most sets them apart from the cool, downtown cynicism of the 1980s and 1990s. The subtitle Bullock’s major monograph – Photography: A Way of Life – applies to very few prominent art photographers of our day.

Cunningham and Bullock, despite the range of their work and their restless experimentation, in the main have been relegated to the dust bin of comfortable historical niches. Each is know for a handful of signature images that assure their place in history while lessening their appeal to practicing photographers. These two books provide the opportunity for presenting these photographers in a new light that could enhance their relevance to contemporary photography.

In Imogen Cunningham: Ideas Without End, Richard Lorenz has assembled nearly 200 photographs that attest to an artist who was constantly experimenting with the medium. The book includes virtually all of the signature images that had defined the popular perception of her output – early male nudes of her husband and sons, pictorialist-influenced vignettes, flowers, studies in abstraction, and portraits of artists and friends. But the plates extend considerably beyond her most familiar images to give an expanded sense of Cunningham’s versatility. Richard Lorenz’s text conveys a good deal of information while shedding light on various elements of her work. As a co-trustee of the Cunningham estate he knows this territory thoroughly, but he restrains from becoming an overt advocate. Instead, he wisely lets the selection of photographs and his straightforward analysis make the case. There is fine, terse writing on the mutual influences that Cunningham enjoyed with a wide circle of friends, including Edward Weston, Man Ray, Minor White, Lisette Model, and Dorothea Lange. Lorenz ably contextualizes Cunningham’s work within a given period. Regarding her nudes early in the century, he writes:

She readily accepted the nude as a subject, a natural outcome of her liberal family upbringing, years of life drawing, and probably exposure to Die Brucke artists who were painting and exhibiting in Dresden during Cunningham’s stay there. The Brucke theme of the nude in the landscape, of nudist bathing and recreation, was an expression of the original and pristine Being as well as a way of overcoming social restraints. Man and woman became integral parts of nature, liberated and guides by Eros, and physically released from the confinement of hypocritical bourgeois morality.


Imogen Cunningham: Ideas Without End
moves beyond the eulogistic tone of Cunningham: A Portrait, a book undertaken soon after her death by friends, family, and colleagues. (Interestingly, I find no reference to Cunningham: A Portrait in Lorenz’s text, even though the earlier book contains a good deal of first-hand reminiscences.) The two books represent a positive and necessary shift of focus in evaluating deceased artists: the first, an outpouring of reminiscence and anecdotes, driven by respect, love and fried; the second a more neutral, and more seasoned, presentation of her work and its contexts.

Wynn Bullock: The Enchanted Landscape
is a much more predictable affair. The reproductions in the recent monograph are of superior quality, and we should be thankful that these images are once again widely available. However, the book is basically a rehash of earlier publications, which is especially regrettable since there are many issues in Bullock’s work that bear re-examination. Bullock wanted to investigate the various ways of seeing and being with camerawork. Although he was a masterful craftsman, his first love was for process rather than product. Yet this book is chiefly concerned with the product of his photographic enterprise, and gives scant attention to the processes, visual and mental, that mediated his vision.

Of the eighty-eight photographs included in Wynn Bullock: The Enchanted Landscape, fifty-eight appeared in the 1973 monograph, Wynn Bullock: Photography – a Way of Life. We are given her chestnuts, presented one-to-a-page, in the familiar Aperture style that was de rigueur twenty-five years ago. The book would have been greatly enlivened by inclusion of other work in a more expansive format – one thinks of recent monographs on Lisette Model and Walker Evans, which transcend the masterpiece ethos with stunning results. Bullock, for example, spent a fair amount of energy in the 1960s making colored photographs of light projected through prisms. The work was experimental, and as such was consistent with the same urges that led him to do pioneering work in photograms, solarization, and negative photographs. This seldom seen work might have taken the book into more novel and unexplored territory.

Bullock’s ideas are interspersed throughout the book, presented in a highly edited and foreshortened way. Set in italic, centered type, amidst goodly amounts of white space, the presentation is precious in the extreme, especially since these excerpts shed considerably less light than the format promises. We might instead have gotten one or two of Bullock’s unpublished manuscripts, where he tries to work out his ideas more systematically: a creative mind seeking anchorage. Theorizing photography was a difficult task for Bullock, as it has been for many photographers and analysts of the medium, and these manuscripts bring with them equal measures of illumination and mud. The abridged presentation of Bullock’s ideas in epigrammatic, quasi-poetical terms, gives the impression that these ideas had come to rest for him, whereas his struggle with them in fact persisted to the end.

Imogen Cunningham: Ideas without End
succeeds because it was not produced by those who were close to her. The Enchanted Landscape: Wynn Bullock, on the other hand, fails to add anything of consequence to Bullock’s sagging reputation, in large measure because it replicates earlier publications without extending their terms. The Cunningham book has moved beyond the terms of eulogy and well-intended love; the Bullock book, unfortunately, languishes in the past. Both of these highly engaged photographers were deeply committed to photography per se, as well as to the processes of knowing and communication through camerawork. In Imogen Cunningham: Ideas Without End, this spirit of inquiry is evident throughout. In Enchanted Landscape, Bullock is presented as a master photographer in a manner that suggests stasis and stolidity instead of process and passion. He deserves better.

David L. Jacobs is Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Houston.

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