Today at Atmos we’re speaking with photographer, collector and true Atlanta legend, Lucinda Bunnen in her Atlanta home. We spoke about her spectacular career, world travels, and what she thinks is in store for the future of photography
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Atmos: Thank you so much for meeting with me today. How did you get started in photography?
Lucinda: I got started in photography by becoming a photographer. My sister and I were talking about how to celebrate my upcoming fortieth birthday, and to make a long story short, I talked fifteen family members into going to Peru. Prior to that trip, I had been working on the Arts Festival of Atlanta in Piedmont Park with Tulio Petrucci, who was a noted filmmaker. So, inspired by him and others, I bought a Super 8 movie camera to take to Peru. I filmed our trek through Machu Picchu; I shot footage of indigenous Peruvians in their native dress, and I was even able to film some of the small local villages along the Amazon River, where we traded belts and hats for dart guns, animal skin bags, and purses.
After that trip, my filmmaker friends really encouraged me to take a photography class. I enrolled in the first photography class that the Atlanta College of Art offered. The first class of my photography course conflicted with our family’s annual beach week. So when we went to Pensacola beach, I borrowed my husband’s camera. I ended up taking one of my most iconic images there: four nuns wearing their habits on the beach.
I still remember my husband’s horror when I chased the nuns down to get the photo , while my husband said to me: “You can’t do that.” I said “Well, it’s public domain and they don’t seem to mind.” That photo was literally my first and it has become one of my signature images.
From the moment I started studying and practicing photography, I discovered that I liked making images of what I had actually seen; I was hooked.
A: Tell me more about that first photo.
L: It was the first picture my first roll of film. I made mostly small prints of that image, the largest was maybe 16 by 20.
A: What triggered your desire to not only create images but also to be a collector of photography?
L : When I started making original work, it was like I had been shot out of a cannon. I was fascinated by the entire photography process. I was learning about everything for the first time. My teacher also urged me to study famous photographers’ work. At that time, I was in New York City fairly often to check on my ailing mother, and the Lee Witkin Gallery was around the corner from my mom’s. I saw a number of exhibitions there, and Lee Witkin encouraged me to start collecting. Remember, this was in 1970, when not everyone even considered photography to be a true art form. Atlanta’s High Museum was not collecting photography at that time. Of course, I thought even spending $100 for a photograph was expensive — and my husband said you can get a print for 25 cents at the drug store. Even so, I began collecting. The first photo I bought was an Edward Weston. Shortly after that, I convinced the High Museum to start collecting photography. I’m proud that the High started early and now has one of the top photography collections in the country.
A: You’re really involved with the High Museum still.
L: Yes. I’m thrilled to have had so many opportunities to work with such a wonderful institution.
A: When did you start collecting?
L: I started collecting objects when I was little and lived on a farm and milked cows before I went to school. I think my first “collection” began when I got a small figurine of a cow. My dad had the same one. They weren’t really valuable but they were the beginning.
A: What do you look for when you’re collecting?
L: I’m really not collecting anymore. I’m 87 and I don’t have any wall space for more art! But most of my collecting has been like that first Edward Weston. It was a photo of a tree, and it was double the cost of all the other Westons in the gallery, but I ended up buying it because it spoke to me. I donated it to the High Museum’s collection, which is fabulous.
A: What’s your favorite place to shoot?
L: Wherever I am.
A: That is a good answer. Do you prefer to shoot in color or black and white?
L: I shot mostly in black and white in the beginning.
A: And was that a preference or just what film you could find?
L: No, my original preference was black and white, and then I shot with two cameras, one black and white, and one color. And then of course digital came along and I could…
A: …do whatever.
L: …do whatever. I came into the digital age in 2007 with a Canon camera, leaving behind my Leica film camera.
A: Has your style changed over time?
L: Oh yes, absolutely. My first book was Movers and Shakers in Georgia. It was 1976, Jimmy Carter was running for president. Frankie Cox and I were able to talk a number of the Georgia politicos into letting me take their picture. I have been lucky to photograph Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr. I even got to travel with the Carters, and they are down to earth and really normal. But after that, my photography started to become much more international in focus.
A: You’ve traveled all around the world to take photographs, right?
L: I have been so lucky to travel to Haiti, Beijing and many other places. I was invited to join Carol Thompson, Curator of African Art at the High, to travel to Burkina Faso in Africa. I went to Bosnia twice as part of an art therapy group to demonstrate photography to help the children who were suffering from years of war and ethnic cleansing — it was art therapy. I’ve been to Cuba. I like to travel to places that will challenge me as a photographer.
A: Have you ever thought about doing any other medium or was photography just always it?
L: Not really. I enjoy the immediacy of photography and I can operate without constraints or a team, and there are amazing techniques that one can use to create images. Recently, I put some old Kodachrome slides from the 1970s out on my deck to see what nature would do to them. They turned into incredible images and they became one of my best projects ever. Marcia Wood Gallery had a show for me called “Weathered Chromes.” A couple of the “chromes” are in a show at MOCAGA right now
A: You just put them outside to see what would happen?
L: Yes. They changed colors, and when they changed, even I didn’t know what they were to start with. Some of them you can tell but some of them you can’t tell at all.
A: It’s better that you don’t know, I think. They were perfectly good until you put them outside?
L: They were perfectly good slides. They just weren’t ones I needed, so I thought I would experiment, see the real impact of nature.
A: Art working for social change has been a big thing recently, such as Agnes Gund selling her Lichtenstein for a net of $165 million, which she is using to start an Art for (criminal) Justice fund.
L: Isn’t that incredible? There are fascinating new directions for collectors to go.
F: What do you think the future of photography is?
L: Photography as an art form is alive and well. More and more schools have photography classes as part of their curriculum. Mainstream urban and regional art museums are embracing photography and are more prominently displaying it. The High Museum finally has a permanent place designated in the museum to show photography. We have come a long way from the early days. I am so proud of that.
A: Amazing. Thank you so much for meeting with us today Lucinda!
Images Courtesy of: Fernando Decillis