Bill Sullivan, Pure Country

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by SUN Editions (here). Foil stamped softcover, 296 pages, with 169 color photographs and illustrations. In an edition of 250 copies. Design by Bill Sullivan. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Bill Sullivan is a New York-based artist, known alternately as a portrait painter, photographer, and designer. In his project 3 Situations, from a decade ago, he used a camera hidden in a shoulder bag to photograph people going through a subway turnstile, riding in elevators, and posing for a street artist, later combining them in sets of three and calling his method “situational photography.” In 2012, he published a photobook Forest Hills looking at the Forest Hills stadium in Queens, NY, and intertwining the history of tennis and art in a clever and unexpected narrative.

Sullivan’s most recent project, entitled Pure Country, traces the history of color image-making. He was inspired by the subject when he came across the work of the Russian photographer and color scientist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky via the Library of Congress. Prokudin-Gorsky’s color photographs, taken in the early twentieth century, are truly fascinating. The images represent photographic surveys of the Russian Empire and were made between 1909 and 1915 with support provided by Nikolai II, the last tsar of Russia; they document a variety of subjects, including people, villages, cities, religious architecture, industry and agriculture. Prokudin-Gorsky created his negatives using a special camera, which made three consecutive black and white photographs through three different color filters: blue, green, and red. He would then project the slides through three lenses, and, with the use of matched color filters, superimpose the three exposures to form an integrated full color image on screen.

In 1918, after the revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky fled Russia and settled in Paris (where he died in 1944). In 1948, the Library of Congress purchased a trove of roughly nineteen hundred triple-image glass plates and their contact-print albums from Prokudin-Gorsky’s sons. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the library made an attempt to restore the colors; the results, however, weren’t particularly good. Then in 2004, the library started working with Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a software engineer and architect, to take another try at creating color composite images, and it was the software that he devised that was ultimately able to consistently combine the three images into one.

In his reconceptualization of color image-making, Sullivan used the Prokudin-Gorsky photographs rendered by Arcas as a starting point. When he came across the archive, he was surprised by how contemporary they looked, and he also noticed some intriguing parallels with imagery of the American West. The book intertwines the photographs of early twentieth century Russia with those, Sullivan imagines, that could have been taken during the westward expansion of the United States. In addition to Prokudin-Gorsky’s work, Sullivan has also included archival newspapers, photographs, and elements of referenced drawings and paintings to fill out his study.

Pure Country is a thick book. It has a completely white cover, with the title foil stamped in blue. The book opens with a triple sequence of the same photograph as it appears in blue, green and red, effectively introducing the idea of the additive color technique. The spread with the book title is followed by a full color version of the photo, showing a town on a river shot from the above, with a few misalignments (particularly in the wafting smoke) that make clear how the image was constructed. 

The book is broken into seven sections, and each section has paired sets of colorful full page textiles and clippings from archival newspapers (with headlines from events in the Russian empire and the USA). In the early part of the book, there are two spreads that provide references to the images for each section. They indicate the location, country, and year, as they alternate between the two geographies. These captions, however, aren’t repeated on the image pages, so rather than providing specifics, they more generally set the direction. This interweaves the images from the two locations, drawing connections and parallels. Each section also contains one photograph taken in New York state within past few years, upending the chronological back-and-forth. The images selected by Sullivan mostly show nature, architectural elements, railroads, and occasionally people. One picture captures a bearded man sitting next to a wooden construction as he looks straight at us. Sullivan also mixes in the artwork of Blinky Palermo, Donald Judd, Kazimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and others, putting realistic photographs and modern abstract artworks from the two nations side-by-side.

Sullivan has also created an extensive chronological index, with “a focus on the evolution of color image-making and photography,” covering the expansive period between 1659 and 2018, adding more history and layers to the meaning of the book. The index contains both text and images, and traces important milestones that led to color photography, provides highlights of the lives of a few key figures (Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, Kazimir Malevich, Edward Curtis etc.), and adds in the history of native Americans; Sullivan also inserts himself into this timeline (in 1994, Sullivan created his first digital composites using Adobe Photoshop 3.0 on a Apple Macintosh computer).

Seen as a single artistic statement, Pure Country is a dense and complex book, mixing reality and fiction, with many layers and cross references, each informed by Sullivan’s knowledge of both art history and photography. Since Sullivan only offers selected hints and clues as we follow the narrative, it is a curious and sometimes perplexing book to browse. There is a sense of excitement when we discover the connections and echoes on visual and conceptual levels, and it is these flashes of insight that come from that process of piecing together the story that keep us looking attentively.

Collector’s POV: Bill Sullivan does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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