Double Visions: An Interview with Sonja Bullaty & Angelo Lomeo
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, September 1985 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
“Watch this!” Gears whir. A horn brays. The convertible comes to a stop. With a mechanical jerk, the woman on the passenger side gets up out of her seat and lifts a camera to her eye. A flashbulb pops, the woman is seated, and with a whir and a bray, the convertible resumes its journey across the hardwood floor. Laughing, Sonja Bullaty scoops it up and returns it to its place on the living room bookcase.
Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo are showing me their collection of photographica, a mixed bag of bright wind-up toys and rare antique cameras ranging from the sophisticated to those they describe as PHD cameras. “You know,” says Bullaty. “Push Here Dummy?” The convertible is the collection’s appropriate centerpiece—an obvious metaphor for the intertwined careers of Bullaty and Lomeo, wife and husband, photographers both.
Since 1947, three years before their marriage, they have traveled the U.S. and Europe together, pursuing assignments for Life, Horizon, Audubon, Champion, and Exxon, or documenting subjects of their own choosing. Based from their Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park West, they’ve photographed people and places, cities and countrysides, fauna and flora. This latter includes so many New England autumns that they’ve taken to calling the landscape’s plumage “foilage.”
Bullaty and Lomeo work as a team and often submit their photographs with a dual byline, but the rule isn’t hard and fast, and their viewpoints are distinct. They share a desire to communicate the beauty and fragility of the environment, but they both admit to having separate visual obsessions—Bullaty for the Kafkaesque shadows she remembers from her childhood in Prague and Lomeo for a witty appreciation of man’s coexistence with nature.
Bullaty’s father, a prosperous Jewish banker, gave her her first camera when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and she was forced to leave school. She was fourteen. She spent the rest of her teens in concentration camps, where the remainder of her family died. Of those years and their effect on her photography, Bullaty, a tiny wisp of a woman with a ready smile, says, “When you have seen the depths of horror, you are so much more responsive to enormous joy. I celebrate life and beauty precisely because I have seen so much pain and ugliness.”
Lomeo, in turn, grew up in an Italian-speaking family in Manhattan’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. He studied painting and design at New York City’s School of Industrial Arts before World War II interrupted. He served overseas, then worked as a lumberjack in Montana, selling scenic photographs to tourists as a sideline. In 1946, Lomeo returned to New York City, determined to transform the sideline into a profession, at about the same time that Bullaty arrived from Europe.
JB: How did you meet?
SB: In the darkroom. Very apropos for your magazine, isn’t it?
AL: I was managing a five-story studio on St. Marks Place—an entire building of darkrooms and studios that we rented to photographers. There was an open intercom on every floor, so everybody could hear what was going on. And I heard this charming voice on the intercom that I hadn’t heard before.
SB: [Laughing.] He wondered about my accent.
AL: I went downstairs to investigate, and I saw Sonja in the darkroom.
SB: Scrubbing the floor.
AL: There she was, down on all fours.
SB: Believe me, I was very disgusted with a building run only by men.
AL: I hadn’t seen anything like that since World War II. She must have had an inclination that somebody was there, because she suddenly turned around and was sort of embarrassed that I was watching her. I said, “You don’t have to do that. We have people to take care of that sort of thing.’”
SB: Taking care all right. You should have seen how filthy it was.
AL: She said, “Who are you?” and I introduced myself.
JB: When did you start photographing together?
SB: About a year after that. We thought it might be a good idea to travel together and pool resources. Eventually, we decided it was kind of nice to be together so we got married in 1951, and we’re still together. Amazingly.
AL: I’m amazed that you can remember what year it was.
JB: Photography is generally perceived as an individual’s pursuit. After all, a viewfinder can only accommodate one eye. Yet you two often publish photos with a dual credit.
AL: Yes, but we have a lot with our own credits too. When we exhibit, our prints are signed individually—and exhibits are a major part of our life. And even though we work as a team on some projects, we each have our own distinct way of seeing. That’s why we get such good coverage on assignments.
SB: Even when we’re on the same location, we’ll usually be back to back.
AL: Or we’ll be literally side by side, looking at the same thing, but when we photograph it, we each come up with something completely different.
JB: When do you use the double credit, then?
SB: When we do a story or an assignment or a book together. For example, in our book Circle of Seasons, it doesn’t say who took what picture, because we feel that what’s important is the essay. If somebody’s really curious, we’ve listed who took what in the back of the book. It’s just that we’re not on some insane ego trip. There’s so much competition in the world, it’s kind of nice to have a little bit of cooperation at home.
AL: I think we work together much better than if we worked alone. First of all, we carry our own equipment, so we can interchange it.
SB: I usually work with only two lenses, but it’s very nice to be able to steal others from Angelo.
JB: You take on a variety of assignments now, mostly for book and magazine publishers. What kinds of things did you start out photographing?
AL: When we started working together, we established a reputation in the art world for photographing objets d’art—sculpture, painting, and furniture—mostly for art galleries and museums
We worked with an 11×14 camera, which was fantastic training, both in good photography and good art. You decide that your work ought to measure up somehow to the wonderful objects you’re photographing.
JB: Are you both essentially self-taught?
SB: Very much so. I worked with Josef Sudek in Prague for a while, but I just carried his equipment. I didn’t really know what he was doing with those big boxes, except that he was trying to create magic. And he worked without an exposure meter. It was all pretty much in his head. I spent one year working with Sudek after the war and then came here in 1947.
JB: How did you get started in the U.S. as a professional photographer?
SB: I was extremely lucky. I found work with a photographer on my third day here. This man advertised for a tall, strong young man. I figured I had nothing whatsoever to lose, so I may as well introduce myself to him. I told him, “Look. I am strong, but I am not tall. I can always take a step stool with me.”
AL: You told him, “I can do anything a man can do”
SB: Well, very definitely. “But,” I said, “I am sorry, I cannot become a boy.” That photographer was the exact opposite of Sudek because he was very scientific. He measured all his exposures and drove me absolutely insane because I couldn’t figure out his mathematical formulas.
AL: That’s about the time I met her. I had returned from World War II. I got a job as a wedding photographer, operating out of that building on St. Marks. I soon realized I didn’t like that kind of work at all. At my suggestion, my boss put me in charge of running the building, doing the booking and sending the photographers out on their various assignments. In a way, it was a lot more work than just going out and shooting the weddings. Then I met Sonja, and we started photographing with the 11×14.
SB: Making 11×14 contact prints. Our printer is a homemade monstrosity that is better than anything made commercially. It’s really quite marvelous.
AL: When they saw those prints, people really went crazy for them. We got a reputation for being able to shoot anything from 35mm to 11×14.
SB: Which we still do, but mostly we use 35mm.
AL: That view camera really developed a discipline in us. You have to get perfection on that ground glass.
SB: It was fantastic training. But life’s so short, and when you work with a large camera, somehow life runs away. You get good but very static pictures. I feel very strongly that it’s important to get some life into a photograph—a blur of wind or something like that. And we like to photograph animals in the wilderness. I would like to see somebody setting up an 11×14 camera and waiting for a bear.
AL: We just finished two children’s books for Western Publishers using photographs of wild animals.
SB: It was something new—not that cutesy-pie sort of nonsense. You know, not the bears and the porridge, all staged, but the bears in real life. It came about because we did a book for Time-Life on the Southern Appalachians, and while we were photographing flowers and mountains, we came upon a full-grown male bear in a tree. So we photographed him. When we came back with the pictures, they sent us right back to do an essay on the life of the bears.
AL: So we went back. It took us two days, but finally we came across a mother bear and two cubs.
SB: The mother attacked Angelo.
AL: I was lucky that an expert on bears from the University of Tennessee was with us. He knew how to stop a bear if it comes at you. All you do is pick up a pebble. He went like that [makes a tossing motion], and the bear was startled by it.
SB: Screaming helps too. I really screamed.
AL: There was no way I was going to get away from that bear if he hadn’t stopped her.
JB: How far away were you shooting?
SB: About ten feet.
AL: Which was stupid of me. I got into this trouble because at Time-Life they said, “Make sure you get a mug shot.” You know? “Get close.” I could have done that with a long lens, but I had either a 105mm or the 55mm on a motorized camera.
SB: About a year after we did that assignment for Time-Life, it was published in Audubon, and then we realized the photographs would make a great story for children, so we submitted the idea to Western.
AL: They printed it on very cheap stock, but despite that, they’ve sold 150,000 already. It’s in the third printing. They told us that the people who buy these books don’t look at the quality of the printing. Instead, they look at how a child will respond to the idea.
JB: I take it that you rough it when you tackle these projects.
SB: Yes, we backpack. We camp. In 1951, we took our first trip in a van.
AL: We were the original hippies. There were very few on the road then.
SB: It wasn’t really a van. We took a half-ton Chevy truck and equipped it with a bed and camping and cooking equipment. We wanted to make it to the coast, but we ran out of money.
JB: Do you stick to the back roads?
SB: Oh yes! Have you read Blue Highways?
AL: We’ve been doing that for years—traveling on those blue roads.
SB: Reading that book was like being there again.
AL: We took a trip down south once. We were in Kentucky in the Appalachians, and we were going over these switchbacks, up one mountain, down another. We had looked at the map, and we thought that it would be interesting to take a back road through hillbilly country. And when we were really deep in it, we came across this guy standing in the middle of the road with a shotgun. He stopped us. Then he walked over to the side of the car, and he said, “Where y’all going’?” I said, “I saw this road on the map, and I’m trying to get to the other side of this mountain.” He said, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere. You gonna turn right around. And if you don’t…” I said, “I get the message!”
SB: Someone told us later that we were probably right on top of his still.
JB: These trips are often self-assignments, aren’t they?
SB: Oh yes. We still do that very often.
AL: My advice to all photographers is this: If you feel strongly about an idea, don’t wait until you get an assignment. If you can afford it, go out and shoot it.
SB: Afford it or not afford it. If you take photography seriously, then sometimes the very best work that you do is your own idea.
AL: And these self-assignments, if they don’t sell right away, they’ll sell later. Ours have always sold.
JB: You’ve gone on the road on assignment quite often too. Tell me about some of your favorite assignments.
SB: We did a couple of assignments in Scotland for Horizon magazine years ago. The first one was based on Boswell’s Journey to the Hebrides. We actually used that incredible book that was written in 1773 as a guide. We wanted to re-create its mood.
AL: That was fun.
SB: It was marvelous. Horizon published it beautifully, and they liked it so well that the next year they sent us to photograph Edinburgh.
AL: And over a period of time, every one of Horizon’s editors ended up taking their vacations in Scotland. That’s when you know that a photo essay has succeeded. One of the pictures from Scotland was used on the cover of Popular Photography. You’d be surprised at the reaction we got because it’s not the kind of photograph you usually see on their over. People wrote to find out how they could buy the picture.
SB: We sold three prints as a result.
JB: It looks and sounds like you have a very congenial collaboration. But aren’t there times when the two of you don’t get along? When you can’t agree on f/stops or something?
SB: You bet.
AL: Sure. Plenty of times.
SB: Of course, if we didn’t fight like cats and dogs, we wouldn’t be together anymore.
AL: Every now and then, a little fight Is OK. But we usually work it out.
SB: Well… Seriously, we do have a very specific problem. We not only live together, but we work together, so if we argue and it’s of a personal nature, it’ll carry over into our professional life and vice versa. There are times when we don’t really like to talk to each other.
JB: I suppose it’s only natural that you’d have differences—what about equipment? Do you favor different lenses and so on?
AL: We each have Nikon bodies but different lenses, so when we work together, we have quite a nice variety of lenses to use.
SB: I love my 28mm. That’s really my overall working lens. And then I work with an 80-200mm zoon.
AL: I have a 55mm, an 18mm, and a solid optics 200mm that converts to a 400mm.
SB: And you have the 105mm.
AB: With those lenses, I can cover anything. I keep a 500mm in the trunk and some of the other big lenses that we use once in a blue moon. But once in a blue moon it pays off.
SB: Actually, we used them quite a bit in the Blue Ridge this past fall because the sunrises over there are just fantastic. Really special.
JB: What a life! How often are you out on the road?
SB: We travel quite a bit. And we have a place in Vermont, but we are not there nearly often enough!
AL: Luckily, we sell a few pictures each year to advertising, and that’s what keeps us going.
SB: Pictures we’ve already done, and that’s great!
AL: We get four checks a year from the Image Bank.
SB: People see things in books, and they sell. Thank God for that, because we don’t go out very much to show our work. Well, let’s face it. As salespeople, we are such gigantic failures that we might as well leave it to others.
AL: There are some photographers who are terrific salesmen. They can sell the lousiest pictures you ever saw and make the guy think he’s got something great. We’re the opposite. We show our pictures and convince the guy they’re no good.
JB: Are you planning any special trips in the future?
AL: Sonja especially wants to go out West, to Death Valley. I want to go too, because if I don’t get out West every now and then, I don’t function very well. I spent my very young years as a lumberjack in Montana. So one of these days, we’ll just pack up and go out there, and she’ll do her thing, and I’ll do mine, and we may come back with some strong new material.
SB: And usually, you know, it takes a few years before a trip like that is financially covered—the part that’s not on assignment. But so what!