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Wynn Bullock & Harold Feinstein in Beijing

Wynn Bullock, "Driftwood," 1951

On March 20, 2010, the fourth exhibition that I’ve curated for See+ Artspace/Gallery opened in Beijing. This two-person show comprises cross-sections of the works of Wynn Bullock and Harold Feinstein — 25 images by each photographer on the walls, with an additional 25 by each in the accompanying catalogues. It will run through May 19.

While they differ in many fundamental ways, Bullock and Feinstein also have numerous affinities:

  • Both of them worked primarily within mid-20th century modes considered rigorously purist in terms of practice — Bullock coming out of the Group f/64 tradition, Feinstein a member of the New York School. Yet both permitted themselves some process experimentation: Bullock played with solarization and negative printing, Feinstein with photomontage.
  • Both committed themselves to the interpretive gelatin-silver print as an extension of camera vision, using that as the principal vehicle for presentation of their imagery in their core bodies of work.
  • Both found themselves drawn nonetheless to extensive investigation of color photography. Bullock produced a substantial series of “color light abstractions,” Kodachrome slides intended for projection. (The first prints of these are just now being released by his estate; I’ve included a selection in the Beijing show.) Feinstein in 2000 published the first in a highly successful series of seven books of color images, most of them scans of botanical subjects: flowers, butterflies, seashells.
  • Harold Feinstein, "Boy & Chalk Numbers," 1979

    Both had unique relationships to Edward Steichen and “The Family of Man.” Bullock had the two lead images in the exhibition and the show, which made him famous, whereas Feinstein — whose work Steichen had acquired for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection while the photographer was still in his teens — refused to allow inclusion of his work in this Steichen project, because he felt the presentational format would detract from consideration of his pictures as autonomous creative works.

  • Both, in my opinion, merit much more attention than they receive at present. Bullock has fallen into posthumous neglect; Feinstein is severely under-recognized as both a photographer and a teacher. (For that reason, I’m presently curating a touring retrospective of Feinstein’s work.)

These reverberations made it more than whimsical to pair them in this exhibition. I won’t get to see the results in person, alas; obligations relating to other projects will keep me in the States for the next several months. Judging from the installation photos I’ve seen, however, both sets of pictures work well in the gallery’s two main rooms, while contrasting and sometimes dovetailing with each other as nicely as I’d anticipated. (For a QuickTime slideshow of the installation and opening, click here.)

Portrait of Wynn Bullock by Joan Murray

Here’s an excerpt from my curatorial essay about Wynn Bullock for this project:

In Wynn Bullock we have the curious case of a recognized American master photographer whose work is included in over 90 major museum collections around the world, who received substantial critical acclaim during his lifetime, who published numerous books, whose name appears in all the standard histories — and who has slipped, at least temporarily, into obscurity. The time is surely ripe for photography’s now international and rapidly expanding audience to rediscover and reconsider him.

In 1948 Wynn Bullock met Edward Weston in California. Weston, who along with Ansel Adams, had spearheaded the Group f/64 and pioneered modernist “straight” or “pure” photography in the U.S. starting in the 1930s. This began a friendship that lasted until Weston’s death in 1958 and deeply influenced Bullock’s work as a photographer.

Where Weston and Bullock diverged was in the range of latitude they allowed themselves for exploration within the parameters of “straight” photography. Weston, like Adams and most of the Group f/64 “purists,” rejected all experimental darkroom procedures for film development and subsequent printmaking; for them, even such purely photographic techniques as photomontage and solarization were anathema. This was the American version of modernist photography, with strict rules regarding photographic practice.

Bullock, by contrast, had absorbed from Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray (and perhaps from his mentor Edward Kaminsky) a more open-ended, European version of photographic modernism. He accepted photomontage, solarization, the photogram, light drawing, the negative print, the blur resulting from long time exposure, and even the creation of a synthetic negative for the production of prints as legitimate methods, seeing each as part of the medium’s inherent and distinctive assortment of tools, materials, and processes. And though Weston and Adams would try their hands at color photography before abandoning it, Bullock would pursue it energetically in a series of color abstractions that only now, more than three decades after his death, have begun to make their presence known. His ability to reconcile both these approaches to photographic praxis, the European and American versions of modernism, has few parallels in the field. The consequent breadth of his investigation of the medium makes him one of the most experimental photographers working in the U.S. in his time.

Portrait of Harold Feinstein, by Judith Thompson

And here’s some of what I had to say about Feinstein:

Harold Feinstein is a true photographer’s photographer, and one of the most seriously under-recognized senior figures in U.S. photography. Until the beginning of this new century he was best-known as a highly respected independent teacher of photography whose private workshops (conducted mostly in his Manhattan studio) influenced hundreds of people in the field, including Mary Ellen Mark, Ken Heyman, Mariette Pathy Allen, and others. Yet at long last, as he nears the age of 80, Feinstein’s work has begun to become familiar to an increasingly wide audience.

Feinstein was considered by the photo world as something of a child prodigy. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931, he started taking pictures in 1946 as a teenager, soon caught the eye of Edward Steichen (then the head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art), and by the age of 19 had prints in that museum’s permanent collection — making him probably the youngest photographer so honored.  Later he worked with the great documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith for a period of time, before setting out on his own. Smith said of Feinstein’s work, “He is one of the very few photographers I have known or have been influenced by with the ability to reveal the familiar to me as beautifully new, in a strong and honest way.”

Widely and internationally published, exhibited, and collected since then, Feinstein became one of a small handful of master teachers whose legendary private workshops and art-institute classes — which he taught regularly for more than forty years  — proved instrumental in shaping the vision of hundreds of aspiring photographers. Like many who teach, both inside and outside the academic setting, he often set career concerns aside to concentrate his attention on his students’ needs. Nevertheless, over the course of his working life has Feinstein produced an impressive and durable body of imagery.

From the late 1940s through the end of the 1990s Feinstein worked almost exclusively in black & white, primarily as a devotee of the small-format camera: 35mm and 2-1/4×2-1/4. Using these instruments, Feinstein steadily pursued his own idiosyncratic brand of that mix of the diaristic and the sociological associated with what’s been called the “New York School” — in his case, a photographic form of tough-minded, tender-hearted humanism.

As with all my projects in China, this one depended heavily on the skills, energies, and commitment of my wife, Anna Lung, as coordinator and interpreter. (Anna now has her own blog, in Chinese only, where she posts her commentary on various subjects, including information about our projects in photography. For the Chinese versions of my curatorial essays for this show, online at her blog, click here.)

Located in the famous 798 Art District of Beijing, See+ Artspace/Gallery concentrates on photography while also exhibiting work in other media, especially sculpture. The previous shows I’ve organized for them include a mini-version of “Saga,” Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s retrospective; “Prima Facie/Circumstantial Evidence,” a two-person show by Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor; and “Light Quartet,” a four-person show by Kate Breakey, Connie Imboden, Jerry Spagnoli, and Robert Stivers. In all cases to date except Minkkinen’s and Uelsmann’s, these exhibitions have represented the first exposure of their work to the audience in mainland China. (Minkkinen’s “Saga” had its first PRC presentation at the Lianzhou International Photography Festival in late 2006, a debut organized by Anna and myself. Uelsmann had a major retrospective in Beijing in 2006, with a substantial catalogue but no accompanying gallery show.)

The long-term goal of this series of small, concentrated exhibitions is to present a cross-section of work from the west, most of it produced post-1940, to inform the growing audience for photography in mainland China of the diversity of content and image-making practices among photographers from the west.

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6 comments to Wynn Bullock & Harold Feinstein in Beijing

  • Dear A. D., I’ve admired your writing for a long time, and especially enjoyed your take on Wynn Bullock. I wrote the biographical essay on the last Aperture book on Wynn (The Enchanted Landscape). I’m hoping to make it to Carmel on the 15th, and will look forward to meeting you.

    Raphael

  • Hi,

    I have a great passion for photography myself and it was a pleasure reading about Mr. Bullock and Mr. Feinstein’s work. Would love to attend one of their exhibitions. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  • For “youngest so honored” (by MOMA) check Stephen Shore.

  • In the mid-’60s I was a volunteer at the Heliography Gallery in New York. Wynn Bullock was added as a member, and had several shows during that time. But there was always an undercurrent that he was somehow less ‘pure’ than others because he did a good deal of commercial work — California Highways magazine, etc. — that was, to put it plainly, not so expressive.

    • Heaven forfend! Instead of marrying into money like Ansel, Bullock actually earned money with his craft to feed his family? Just like Edward Weston, whose commercial studio portraits were also “to put it plainly, not so expressive,” but who never got sneered at for making his living that way?

      I think we’re fortunate that such benighted attitudes have long since evaporated.

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