Karen Bullock is one of the 2018 Rfotofolio Selections.
“This work is emotionally powerful and incredibly sad. I had a hard time looking at the images of suffering animals, but I applaud the artist for forcing us to see what we, as a society, try to ignore and deny. This is an important statement and deserves to be seen by all caring people. I gave this a top rating due its impact and importance.” Fran Forman
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I love the scent of pine needles and decaying leaves underfoot, the damp feel of the forest; the sound of gulls and the waves caressing the shore; to look at the vastness of the stars—these give me hope and inspire me.
I care deeply for animals and the environment. The suffering of sentient beings, the stripping and polluting of the land, our seeming inability to adequately respond to climate change —these are devastating. I recognize my own culpability with remorse. This is balanced with wonder and gratitude for all the beauty and goodness in the world. Photography is one way of sharing the love, concern, joy, delight, or distress that I feel as I try to comprehend all this.
I’ve lived on the Gulf Coast for 17 years. Although I like cooler climates, there are things I love about the South. I like to take road trips to explore just a few miles or a few hours from home. When it isn’t a million degrees outside, I love to sit on the porch swing which was made by my husband with a book, a cup of coffee, and my dogs who also love the swing.
I’m deeply thankful for my family and friends.
Where did you get your photographic training?
My first camera was a kodak instamatic. I was about 11 years old when I first started taking pictures.
Eventually my dad gave me his old Nikomat. I was excited, but I said, “The light meter is broken, and I don’t know how to use it.”
He said, just read the information on the back of the film box and you’ll figure it out.”
That was how I learned to properly expose a photo—by eye. I think it was a great way to learn, with a manual camera, and visually discerning qualities of light and shadow.
In college I enjoyed a couple classes in basic photography and darkroom techniques, but I learned the most by just making photographs, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and from mentors in the field.
In August 2017, I went to a workshop led by Susan Burnstine at Maine Media. That was a turning point for me. I found a deeper focus and more clarity. Susan later introduced me to Traer Scott who has been a mentor to me for the past year. They have questioned me in ways that have helped me to better hear my own voice, see my own vision, uncover what is within me and then challenged me to go another step further. This has strengthened my work tremendously.
Why do you create?
I can’t imagine not creating. When I was a kid, I was always creating with whatever I could get my hands on—mud, crayons, sand, paint, clay, or an oatmeal-box pinhole camera. Creating is part of who I am and part of the way I express myself.
Creating can be a kind of meditation or prayer for me. It helps me to be present to what is in front of me. When I am outside with my camera, distractions fade away. I’m aware of what is going on around me but I’m mentally, physically, and spiritually in a different place than I am when I am not creating.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
It is a difficult question. God. All the artists whose work I’ve seen and been captivated by in museums, galleries, and books. Children. Mentors, friends, family.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
The images lingering in my mind lately are from Nick Brandt’s series, “Inherit the Dust.” I am in awe of his photos: the work required to make them, the creative vision, and the message.
The photographs are not easy to look at and yet they are difficult to pull away from. I return to them again and again because of their beauty, detail, and shattering visual statement about the world. Two that stand out in my memory are “Alleyway with Chimpanzee, 2014” and “Quarry with Lion, 2014”.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
I am often serious. When it comes to my art, I want it to be perfect.
This photo was made during the 2017 Eclipse. As I looked around everything felt surreal, people wearing weird glasses looking at the sky, others looking intently into cereal box viewers. I was more entranced by all that than by the eclipse. I began to play with different angles and lenses. The scene was comical and to capture it, I had to get caught up in it. I was smiling as I made this shot. I smiled more as I warped it a bit in post. It is just weird, so unlike my other photos, and I love it. It taught me never to take myself too seriously, that even though my art at times expresses a serious voice or a difficult topic, playing is a delightful necessity to creativity.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
A good day is when I completely step away from everything else. It is a good day when I’ve made a few photos I’m satisfied with, but it is an even better day when I know I just made that one photo that just knocks it out of the park for me, a photo that might touch someone’s soul and fully expresses what I am trying to say.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed away, who would it be?
How important is the photographic community to you?
I’ve learned so much from other photographers, from seeing their work and hearing about their process, from feedback and critiques of my own work. People have been so generous with their time and sharing their knowledge.
Earlier today, I met with one of the other photographers in the 2018 Rfotofolio selections. I met her at a workshop and we barely know each other but she took time out of her day for me, to answer some questions. It was so helpful.
It is important to give back also, to encourage other photographers, to support the community. One of the things I’ve been working on this past year is setting up a community darkroom. It is almost finished. I hope it will be used often and that it will be a support to local photographers.
I’m also thankful for the artists I work with: painters, potters, textile artists, and a few photographers; being a part of an arts collective encourages me daily.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
My go-to lens is a manual Nikon 50mm 1.8. Sometimes a good telephoto or wide-angle lens and a tripod. These are helpful, not necessarily essential.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
Yes. I enjoy photographing at night and in the rain because there are often elements of surprise in those photographs.
I’m fascinated by Megan Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes, the way she creates them, as there seems to be great openness to possibility, to a variety of outcomes. I would enjoy learning about her process and exploring various ways of allowing nature to unfold into a photograph, to collaborate with the rain or the wind or the sea or the trees to create art.
I’m also inspired by Jennifer Shaw’s “Flood State” and “Hurricane Story.” I have traumatic memories associated with hurricanes and I appreciate the way she has taken a distressing topic and created a story both honest and beautiful. It resonates with me. I’m pondering it.
What’s on the horizon?
I’m continuing to work on my series, “See Me.” It is a long-term project and, at times, emotionally exhausting, so I find balance by working on other things simultaneously. Another series in progress is about churches in the American South; I haven’t decided on a title for it yet.
Thank you for sharing your work and words.
To learn more about the work of Karen Bullock please visit her site at Karen Bullock.