One day, just after Christmas in 1984, Marion Bulin was driving to work through the Marina District of San Francisco. All of a sudden, she says, "I realized that I was just driving through this crop of Christmas trees." This crop, however, was of discards, looking strangely human and sad as they shared the sidewalks with garbage cans and dog droppings.
Because she is a photographer, Bulin returned with a camera. That was the start of the series she calls "O Christmas Tree," and which she expects to be a lifelong project, starting the first weekend after New Year's for the rest of her life.
The pictures are intentionally anthropomorphic, and in the five Christmas seasons she has photographed discarded trees, Bulin has seen a range of personalities emerge. "Some are pretty brave and happy, like the one with the garbage cans. He was sitting out there and seemed to be at peace with the situation, and pretty cheery," Bulin says, speaking by phone from her home in San Rafael, California. "Then there are real horrible ones. Tree murderers! A lot of the worst ones I don't even show. I have some burned, chopped up ones thrown in shopping carts."
It did not take very many of those experiences to prompt Bulin to buy the live, potted tree she uses every year in her own home. Now the gallery and darkroom manager for the University of California extension in San Francisco, Bulin has been a photographer for about ten years. Selections from "O Christmas Tree" were on display earlier this fall at the Arizona State University Memorial Union Fine Arts Lounge.
To photograph the painful yearly ritual of the Christmas trees, Bulin uses a 4x5 view camera, the sort favored by landscape photographers in the Ansel Adams mold and invariably associated with images of the unspoiled beauty of nature. "I'm turning the tradition inside out," Bulin says. She also attracts a fair amount of attention, since the camera requires a tripod, and a large black cloth to hide under while she focuses.
Once, she says, on one of San Francisco's hills, "Some people walked up to me--here I am with the Ansel Adams camera--and they said `Oh, what panorama are you photographing?' I just popped out, `Oh, the Christmas tree across the street.' It was one of these dead, weird ones. Their jaws just dropped." Other times, however, passers-by will get into the spirit and suggest photo opportunities on nearby streets. The search for discarded Christmas trees has sent Bulin scouring the sidewalks of New York, Reno, and Los Angeles, as well as her native San Francisco, and has proved a lesson in anthropology, as well. The best neighborhoods for discarded Christmas trees, she has discovered, are ones with apartment buildings occupied by rich people. San Francisco's Marina District is prime territory, and many parts of Manhattan are "heaven." Expect slim pickings, however, in places with dumpsters, which, along with the chippers many cities now use, Bulin regards as an enemy of art. And the suburbs, Bulin says, involve a lot of driving around for very few trees.
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In 1985 she photographed in Phoenix and got not only a lovely shot of a tree riding in the back of a pickup truck, but the picture she often uses as the final one in an exhibition--an abandoned Christmas tree lot.
In New York she got the picture that proves why she never needs to manipulate a shot. ("People do much stranger things than I would ever think of," Bulin says.) The photograph shows a lovingly decorated tree still in its honored location in the corner of a Manhattan eatery; just outside the window, within feet of it, lies a discarded Christmas tree--proof, she thinks, of the existence of the subconscious. "O Christmas Tree" is part of a larger series Bulin calls "Modern Gardening," which deals with the unintentional design man has imposed upon the natural landscape, "not people's real gardens." A saguaro cactus being supported by two-by-fours and a garbage can in front of a barren vista at Death Valley are instances of such manmade designs.
Bulin, 43, has a background in sculpture and printmaking and spent ten years as the art director for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and later for Bank of America. She took photography classes, she says, because she got tired of listening to photographers tell her the shots she wanted wouldn't work "because the F-stops were in Leo." Before she began "Modern Gardening," Bulin produced a series called "Roadwork." It involved photographing, in strict sequence, green and white mileage markers. A certain amount of the art was left to chance, because the format included whatever "landscape" happened to be in the background. Sometimes it would include people changing tires, sometimes it would be dull. Once, near Palm Springs, it included a spectacular sunset.
Bulin's husband, whom she met at Bank of America, used to accompany her on those photographing expeditions. But, alas, he will not be along for this year's "O Christmas Tree," and her search for the definitive Christmas-tree-in-the-snow-shot and Christmas-tree-with-palm-tree-shot. "Being Jewish, he didn't quite understand the significance of the project," she says.