Emil & Edna Chapter One: The Mystery of 'Nude in Tall Grasses;' or how a Big Sur cultural relic ended up in a Prunedale yard sale

By Joe Livernois

She is arranged in a classic pose: left arm crossed behind her neck, head bowed reverently to her right. She is beautiful. Sensual. Nude. She seems to be sitting along a stream bed, among the tall reeds, and she is framed as a timeless Venus birthed in black and white.

I discovered the photograph at a yard sale off Castroville Boulevard in Prunedale late one Saturday afternoon about 20 years ago. The sale featured lots of household stuff, but also quite a few loose and random pieces of artwork, allegedly rescued from a storage locker maintained by a local community college instructor, though even the ownership of the locker was vague.

The style looked familiar: an innocent black-and-white nude in a wild setting.

It was signed “Edna Bullock.” 

While I am only vaguely aware of the lives and times of famous local photographers, I knew of Edna Bullock and her memorable story. She had been a school teacher while her husband, Wynn Bullock, developed a portfolio of mind-blowing photographs during his storied career. Along with Ansel Adams, the Westons and others, Wynn was a leading figure in the golden era of distinguished fine-art photographers on the Central Coast, a movement known as the Monterey Legacy. And when Wynn died, in 1975, his widow picked up a camera and created her own mind-blowing work, emerging as a renowned photographer in her own right. 

I checked the back of the framed 11-by-11-inch photograph I found at the Prunedale yard sale. The name of the photo was “Nude in Tall Grasses” and it was dated “1987/89.”

But it was another inscription on the back, written in pencil, that blew me away:

For Emil
on his 88th birthday
with love,

I also knew of Emil White. There is much to be said about White, a Big Sur rascal of legend and lore, but the first thing that comes to mind is his libido and his expertise in the art of seduction. A headline above one of his obituaries declared he “lived for the ladies until his dying day.” Another obituary writer said that “Emil existed unabashedly for women. He loved them in the flesh and in the abstract.” It was all school-boy misogyny, bad behavior and serial sexual escapades with Emil White, the sort of behavior that isn’t always tolerated these days. Most important, Emil White was author Henry Miller’s best friend; together they molded the Big Sur mystique that endures to this day. 

I didn’t know the particulars of the photo I found in Prunedale, but I knew the names and the reputations. Some quick research showed that White had turned 88 on April 10, 1989, less than four months before his death. Edna Bullock must have been there, at his final party, and “Nude in Tall Grasses” must have been a gift.

The photograph is fine art, but it’s also a significant footnote in the cultural-historical fabric of the region, with a threadline that connects some of the most interesting characters to roam Big Sur: Edna and Wynn Bullock, Henry Miller, Emil White. As a relic, the photograph represents the intersection of art, culture, myth, mysticism, madness and sex that established the Big Sur aura. So what was it doing in a pile of bad student art, leaning against a folding table at a random yard sale in Prunedale?

“How much do you want for it?” I asked the woman at the sale.

“Five dollars,” she answered.

“Do you know what this is?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I just need to get rid of all this stuff.”

It was late in the day and she was obviously desperate to sell off what she could. I might have negotiated the price down to a dollar if I wanted. 

I wanted to tell her that this particular photograph — this “Nude in Tall Grasses” — encapsulates a whirl of local lore and history that connects the lives of so many people who created the Big Sur mystique. It is a ki, the spiritual object that animates the essence of a time and place that no longer exists.

But I sensed she wasn’t interested in all that. I handed her a ten-dollar bill, told her to keep the change. I’ve had the photograph in my office ever since.

“This is such an artist-rich area you never know just what you’ll find, or where you’ll find it,” John Rexine told me not long ago. Rexine is the director of collections and exhibitions at the Monterey Museum of Art, which houses more than 430 Edna Bullock photographs.

He said the pedigree of “Nude in Tall Grasses” is intriguing. “The inscription alone certainly makes yours archivally significant,” he said. I’d be curious to know how it landed in a Prunedale garage.”

So would I.


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Photo: Edna Bullock, Nude in Tall Grasses, 1987 © 1987/2022 Bullock Family Photography LLC.  All rights reserved.

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About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

5 thoughts on “Emil & Edna Chapter One: The Mystery of 'Nude in Tall Grasses;' or how a Big Sur cultural relic ended up in a Prunedale yard sale

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this remarkable story! I am Wynn and Edna’s youngest daughter and it is indeed an intriguing mystery as to how my Mother’s gift of a photograph to Emil White ended up at a garage sale in Prunedale!

  2. Well, I regret to inform, but the Poet, Beatnik, Author Jerry Kamstra passed away November 26, 2019 at the age of 84. There’s mention of many things in his self written obituary, including the stint caretaking Henry Miller’s stuff after Emil’s passing. here’s the links to the information. — https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/santacruzsentinel/name/jerry-kamstra-obituary?id=7287198 —– and also information at, https://www.kerouac.com/beat_event/jerry-kamstra-the-frisco-kid-returns/
    If I am not mistaken, it looks like Jerry collected stuff along the way that may still be in Scotts Valley, CA or in Los Angeles, CA.

    1. Thanks for this. Kamstra is the person Barbara Bullock-Wilson refers to when she says the former caretaker probably took the photo. I opted not to name him. She thought he was a faker, a wannabe Henry Miller.

  3. Way back when, I was invited by Big Sur locals to meet with Emil with the intention that I might consider living (at the now HM Library) to be available as Emil was in his 80s and locals were concerned that he was living alone. I was well into my 30s and could stand up to his (then aged) advances and I was in law school (night school in Monterey) so my hours were flexible. Emil was charming (& flirtatious) but…I declined. Dunno who might have subsequently moved in? One always wonders about those opportunities missed?

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