Trails Tales and Transformations - Retrospective Photographs 1970-1999

Curator's Statement by Tullio Petrucci

Excerpt from the essay MAKING MAGIC AND DEFINING COMMUNITY by Allan D. Coleman

THE 1970-THE DECADE IN WHICH LUCINDA BUNNEN, THE SUBJECT OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE, began to work seriously in photography—saw the emergence of an unprecedented pluralism in photographic praxis. The medium simultaneously underwent other, equally dramatic changes: the rapid expansion and elaboration of the photo-education system, the sudden museumization of photography, the creation of a market for photographs, the increase in historianship and connoisseurship, the initiation of a critical dialogue around the medium. Those who came of age in photography from 1970 onward, therefore, found themselves effectively born into a world radically different from that of their immediate predecessors.

Lucinda Bunnen, then, represents an intriguing case study. Although chronologically of an age that would group her with an earlier cohort of pugnacious, embattled die-hards, she operates in photography with the open-minded free agency of the post-1970 cohort. She moves across a range of very different approaches to praxis with a remarkable disregard for boundary lines that, for many photographers her age, were (and still are) strictly drawn and fiercely defended.

What enabled her to do so? Partly, I think, it was that she came to photography in 1970 at the age of 40, and so did not grow up in the medium during that phase of rancorous dispute and dogmatic stricture. She first stepped onto the field in mature adulthood, as it were, after those wars had effectively ended.

I first became aware of Lucinda Bunnens work as a photographer in a roundabout fashion through her involvement in what I’d describe as an educational and curatorial project. As her own initial engagement in photography became a passionate commitment, Bunnen began paying closer attention to collecting photography and the pattern of acquisition at the dominant museum in her region, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Initiated in mid-1974 by then-director Gudmund Vigtel (who ascribes to a 1974 lecture of mine at the museum the spark that lit this particular torch), that collection by 1980 had grown rapidly but lacked clear shape and purpose.

Beginning in 1981, Bunnen and a group of colleagues, operating as an informal team with the cooperation of the museum, initiated an ongoing dialogue among themselves that effectively both rationalized the collection and enhanced it by adding to it dozens of carefully selected key works—by Clarence John Laughlin, Judy Dater, Duane Michals, Chuck Close, Leah Karp, Arthur Tress, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and others. Bunnen and her committee made the collection a balance of regional photographic history and very personal imagery. The collection was first exhibited under the title “Subjective Vision.” With a certain sense of poetic justice, the museum invited me to provide the catalogue essay for that 1983 show.’ It was then that I first met Bunnen and discovered that, in addition to this long-term experiment in tutorial connoisseurship and generous patronage, she was also a serious working photographer in her own right.

Bunnen was by then already well on her way, having exhibited and published widely from almost the beginning of her late- starting hut fast-blooming career. (She made a short Super-8 film on a trip to Peru in 1969-1970, which led to her taking a course in still photography at the Atlanta School of Art. A year later, in early ‘71, she had a 99-print exhibit at Saks Fifth Avenue in Atlanta. As a result, Gudmund Vigtel invited her to contribute to a show at the High Museum.)’ Those activities went hand in hand with collecting all along the way.
I started making photographs in July of 1970, and I probably started collecting photography in September 1970... So I started collecting the first year that I started photographing, in she reminisces. Consequently, coming to terms with her photographic work requires attention to her collecting tendencies, and vice versa. As she herself says, “I’m a looker and a collector— I’m a hunter and gatherer.’

Both the still-evolving Bunnen Collection at the High Museum and her own extensive private collection indicate that this photographer was drawn from the outset to works by others that, technically and stylistically, spanned the full range of possibilities that the medium had to ffer.8 This is not as surprising as it would have been a mere decade earlier. When Bunnen found her way into the medium, we’d abruptly entered a full-tilt revisionist phase of our understanding of photography. This phase generated an enormous range of works that must be considered in any serious discussion of what constitutes the photographic.

Bunnen embraced that diversity—and the attitude underpinning it—in her collecting tendencies, and one can see the impact of it in even the earliest )f her own works on view in this retrospective. That work was done entirely in black and white, then still the dominant form for creative photography. (The explosion of color photography—sparked in large part) the availability of several new technologies for color printing—would not take place until the late 1970s.) In these beginning pieces, one can see her mastering the photographic image’s poetics—its capacity for metaphor and its accessibility to the mark of the mind—by using the silver-gelatin print as an expressive vehicle. Though one can consider these (as Bunnen herself does) as her student work, they also reveal a sense of form and drama, a feel for the original photograph as a crafted object when produced through interpretive printmaking (this coming out of the tradition whose foremost living champion at that moment was the late Minor White, with whom she studied briefly in 193), and a concern the photographic image as an autonomous event rather than an ostensible transcription of outer reality.

in some ways these images are all over the place, emulating the exuberance of a kid in a candy store confronted with a surfeit of choices but also the impulsiveness of Stephen Leacock’s knight in armor who “rode madly off in all directions.” Yet, if one looks closely—and especially if one comes back to this section of the exhibition after moving chronologically through it—one will find ere the seeds of all that came after: a concentration on the human presence and the human-made, a fascination with the descriptive capacity of lens imagery, an engagement with the photograph’s function as a means of witnessing and bearing witness, and a simultaneous willingness to play freely with the images and materials without concern  for the seeming contradiction. From  her earliest works on, Bunnen exhibits the freedom to move unapologetically between modes, which is the distinguishing mark of contemporary photographic praxis worldwide.