Bruce Pope: [Playing With] How Things Look
“I was always an artist, I don’t remember not being one,” reflects Bruce Pope, talking about his life-long pursuit of both painting and photography. Pope displays his artwork at the HQ Gallery on First Street in Benicia, which he joined in 2020. He was drawn to paint at an early age. Growing up in San Diego, he remembers making sand paintings at the beach. “I’d try to get sand to stick onto a board. It would always fall off, but I kept trying,” he laughs. Witty and playful, Pope is careful not to take himself or his art too seriously.
Pope began his photography around the age of 10, after getting his first Kodak Brownie camera.
“I’d just go out, reportage style, photographing what I saw on the street. City scenes, buildings, and people … I was interested in how things looked. Like, if you’re taking a train, and you look over into an open window and somebody’s in there. What I see leaves a little snapshot in my brain that I remember for a few months.” Incorporating these observed, everyday scenes and figures into the narrative content of his work, Pope learned to create unique imagery by manipulating various processes. Early on, these were darkroom experiments. Later they were done with digital tools.
“When I was in high school, I learned to do darkroom work. In my 20s I started my experimentation putting an infrared filter on the lens. Infrared changes everything. Skies become black. The only light that passes through is infrared light. After printing an image, I would bleach it all back to get the grain to come out, until I liked how it looked.”
Bruce Pope. Self Portrait. Photograph.
Bruce Pope. Boardwalk. Photograph.
Pope compares his artistic experimentation to putting something into a blender: it comes out different. “My artistic journey could be characterized as a series of mistakes. In the darkroom, a lot of things could go wrong. You could overexpose a print and then bring it back to something good through a toning process. I really cherish the mistakes that work out.”
Bruce’s goal was a career in photography.
He studied at the Brooks School in Santa Barbara. In the 1980s and ‘90s he worked with advertising agencies, doing photography for magazine articles and covers for magazines, books, and albums. He incorporated his painting skills into his photography, sometimes hand painting or airbrushing a black and white photo. A portfolio of his work at the time consisted of a collection of transparencies bound together in paper sleeves. “It’s old school, it’s how we presented our work before Facebook. But I got into galleries with that kind of stuff.”
Bruce Pope. Bart. Mixed Media on Paper.
Pope moved to San Francisco in 1985 and got a job in a top photographer’s studio. “I didn’t get enough work with agents and needed to make a living, so I went to work painting the backgrounds and sets for commercial photography. It was a full-time job.” He tried briefly in the 1990s to engage advertising agencies in promoting his work, this time in New York, but once again, found no traction.
“In the late ‘90s, everything changed to digital….
…I love the possibilities of digital photography, but it took away all the work that I was doing. There was no need for anyone to paint backgrounds or sets. All of that can be done digitally. I had to leave photography as a career, and I went to work for an environmental company. I got a job monitoring Bay Area waste sites and wrote inspection reports.” The work became a career, and Bruce moved his family to Crockett and later to Benicia as his job location changed. “I retired from the company a few years ago to take care of my parents. I was able to paint during this time and it was a way to get back into my art.”
Bruce Pope. Palm Tree, Moon and Star. Photograph.
Bruce. Pope The Building. Oil on canvas.
The aesthetic of Pope’s paintings reflects that of his photography, often capturing a moment in narrative fashion, with the use of playful, fanciful, shadowy, or altered imagery. His work generally represents autobiographical memories, or a commentary on the human situation. He paints with oils, and uses graphite, modeling paste, wax medium, oil sticks, and charcoal. He creates works that are thick with texture, using fabric collage materials, tissue paper, metal leaf and bits of chicken wire, or by applying paint with wadded up plastic. “I like the figurative, abstract expressionists of the ‘50s. I like David Park, Manuel Neri, and Elmer Bischoff. Image-wise, I think that’s what I go to. A lot of the imagery in my painting, I’ve taken from my photographs. And a lot of the painting techniques that I stumbled upon for those photographers’ backgrounds, I use now.”
Feature image: Bruce Pope. Boats. Photograph.