“To be an artist in 1974-75 interested in conceptual art, there was a tremendous amount of freedom in the early 1970’s.”
James Welling. Enthralled by the possibilities.
A conversation with Raphael Shammaa.
April 9, 2014.
Raphael – At the ripe old age of 12 you started studying art. At 14 you took drawing classes and began working with watercolor. At 19 you worked on gray monochrome paintings and outdoor sculptures. At 22 you were assisting John Baldessari. Seems like you were a kid in a hurry at the time.
Jim – I grew up in a family where my father worked for a company that printed art catalogs and he was very interested in contemporary art. My dad’s father was a talented amateur painter and my uncle was an artist who specialized in line drawings of architecture. Another uncle was an architect.
Raphael – Yes, but you covered a lot of ground in a hurry.
Jim – My mind was on fire.
Raphael – By the way, congratulations on your upcoming ICP “Infinity Award”. The award ceremony is on April 28 if I’m correct?
Jim – Yes, thanks. So to backtrack, I began with an interest in representational art, but by the time I was in high school I was interested in color field painting, abstract expressionism, a whole jumble of things. Put simply I was interested in finding out what was the most contemporary art being done in 1968.
Raphael – So you were interested in being of your time.
Jim – Yes.
Raphael – As a young man, better trained as a painter than a photographer, you decide upon the casual advice of a friend – during a hike I think, to choose photography as your path. What did it mean for you at the time to be an artist? What was it about for you? How were you living the “artist” identity?
Jim – To be an artist in 1974-75 interested in conceptual art, there was a tremendous amount of freedom in the early 1970’s. You could make paintings, performances, sculptures, video work, text-based work. And, in retrospect the plurality of media wasn’t right for my personality.
I actually liked working on specific media; I was very happy making watercolors. I spent many years in art school trying different mediums and eventually settled on video – I loved making video works. When I lost access to the video equipment because it was all up at school, I spent a year struggling until my friend Matt Mullican advised me to get a camera and do photography. In retrospect photography was a perfect medium for me because it had a history, and I could research it. I like research. In the mid 1970’s I prefered to look at books, art catalogues; so photography was a natural fit.
Raphael – And it was on its way to becoming digital…
Jim – Well, marginally in the 1970’s perhaps. But digital photography was coming via pre-press tools, via publishing. You could say that what digital represents to me is a return to my father’s profession, printing books and catalogs.
Raphael – To lithography.
Jim – Yes, offset lithography. I like printed things. Before I became a photographer I collected images, images from newspapers, calendars, anything that was printed was suitable.
Raphael – In 1995 you become Area Head of photography at UCLA. That’s 19 years ago. Looking back, what has teaching brought you? Do you think you’re a different artist because of it?
Jim – Before I started teaching I didn’t have a nuanced opinion about the history of photography. I had my likes and dislikes; I didn’t have to understand or make sense of the area.
Raphael – And you didn’t have to discuss it either, it seems.
Jim – Correct. I was thinking about my own work and not really taking into account more recent work or the history of the medium.
When I came to UCLA I decided to get rid of black-and-white and teach color. Up til that point, I had never made color photographs, but I understood that most contemporary artists worked in color and the students should work in color too. And, in terms of work flow, color was easier to teach than black-and-white. Black-and-white is an artisanal art form whereas color is mechanized, the color processor makes the print.
Also the undergraduate program at UCLA is in a university; it’s not a photography school. The students were artists using photographs. They shouldn’t worry about making the “fine print.”
Raphael – So the purpose of the course was to give these students a panoramic view of art; is that what it was?
Jim -. Fifty percent of my undergraduate students are sculptors or painters or video artists using photography.
Raphael – I read an article in the New Yorker by Stacey D’Erasmo, aptly titled “Proteus” that says “… in the course of long artistic careers, women are more likely than men to change form and style”. As evidence, the article proposes the examples of Joni Mitchell vs Neil Young; Toni Morrison vs Philip Roth; Roni Horn vs Eric Fischl. And you’re of course the appropriate male artist to ask to comment on this theory because you absolutely don’t fit the profile. What do you think?
Jim – My work may seem different one body to another, but to me it seems very consistent and tight. I’ve now settled into two different ways of working, one is more abstract and one is more representational
Think of it this way: you have a physical body, your skin, your sense of touch. Here reside by way of this analogy, abstract photographs, the physical medium of photography. And then, for example you’re riding in a train and you look out of a window and see something you want to photograph. You go back to the site and photograph the subject with a camera. A much more extended mental operation than scattering light on a sheet of photo paper in the darkroom. My two ways of working reflect on modes of human experience – you use your body and your mind.
“Some photographers see their work only after they print it. They see things in the photographs that were initially invisible. It’s wonderful and humbling to discover things this way.”
Raphael – You said during your presentation at ICP that examining your own images inspires you to develop new bodies of work. Is that an important part of your creative process and can you elaborate a bit on that? I think the example you provided was how you started working on “Light Sources” after looking at one of your train pictures and noticing that spots of light seemed to repeat in your images. You referred to them as “little suns”.
Jim – Right, right. That was a very specific example of how I saw three different subjects in a single photograph, “East Pennsboro, PA 1993”. I photographed a locomotive beside the Susquehanna River. When I printed the photograph I became very interested in the small wood frame house behind the locomotive, I became very interested in these types of houses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and I began a side project to photograph this style of architecture. Finally the print of “East Pennsboro” was difficult to make. I struggled in the darkroom to balance the shadowed darks of the locomotive with the shimmering surface of the river. Eventually I saw the water’s surface as a subject that I would explore in “Light Sources”. So that single photograph was a portal into two additional sets of photographs.
Consider this idea. Some photographers see their work only after they print it. They see things in the photographs that were initially invisible. It’s wonderful and humbling to discover things this way. Perception is limited, and photography permits us to see more in the world than we see at first glance.
Raphael – Because, I imagine, peering through a camera is a different kind of engagement than perusing a printed image.
Jim – Yes.
Raphael – You also mentioned that while creating art you are not cognitively aware of what’s going on. But if you were aware of what’s going on, what would you see? Which, do you suspect, are the moving parts of your creative process as you’re working?
Jim – I usually bring to a new project other ideas from past works that didn’t quite fit. So what you might see are sifting of techniques and ideas that I worked with last year but now are subtly transformed. Work comes out of earlier work.
Raphael – Other than a few portraits and group shots, of the many images and studies in your work only a handful of frames depict people. Have you ever considered studies involving the human form?
Jim – Portraits were crucial for my earliest photographs in Los Angeles during the late 1970’s. When I moved to New York I didn’t feel completely comfortable making portraits. All the Los Angeles pictures used strong, indirect light, which wasn’t easily available in New York. I’ve never liked strobes so for quite some time I made very few portraits. It was only in the early 1990’s that I took up making new portraits for my Light Sources.
But to answer your question, my Torso photographs come closest to describing “the human form.” More generally all my work solicits the notion of tactility, the human touch. Touch is the most intimate of all the senses.
Raphael – Beginning in 2005 you photograph three modernist residences, in vibrant color. Did you go into each of these with some sort of precise artistic intention? And was your concern strictly color? They seem to follow in the footsteps of “Hexachromes”.
Jim- In September 2005 I gave a lecture at the DIA Art Foundation on Andy Warhol’s Shadow paintings at DIA Beacon. Since 1998 I’d been struggling with color and this talk opened up a new way of making color photographs.
And yes you are absolutely correct that the architecture projects followed on my “Hexachome” pictures. With the Hexachromes I made six exposures on the same sheet of film using both the additive and subtractive primaries. The use of brilliant color with modernist architecture was an end run around the canonical purity of the architecture. Color freed me to make bold compositions. But the original idea came from thinking about how Warhol made his Shadow silkscreens.
Raphael – You photographed Los Angeles early in your career and, on a dare from Andrew Perchuk, went back a second time in 2003. Anything you want to tell us about what distinguishes the first experience from the second, and how it translates into the work?
Jim – When I returned to photographing Los Angeles in 2003 the United States was in an anxious condition following 9/11. I pictured this unease in moody, dark images of a closed off city in full daylight. The 1970’s pictures are more inquisitive; more open. “Los Angeles, 2003” broods.
Raphael – Your “Diary of Elizabeth and James Dixon / Connecticut Landscapes” and your more recent “Wyeth” and “Connecticut Landscape” projects, draw upon a personal feeling: the yearning to reconnect with something that is meaningful to you in the past. Do these three bodies of work hold a special place for you, or are all your projects equally meaningful to you?
Jim – Some of my work has an autobiographical turn and the three projects you mention are, to some extent, personal. But let’s not forget that many photographers and artists use autobiography as a creative start point. These projects began in my personal life but the work isn’t only personal. It goes way beyond that.
Raphael – Some photojournalists refer to a “Chelsea brand of “artistical truthiness” (their term), as the kind of work that is made up, is of narrow interest because it only addresses other artists, and they add “ … these days you don’t know what is a REAL photograph and what is not”. They call for “no bullshit in photography”, the kind of photography that “has to do with the human condition, that has relevance”; in short – as Donna Ferrato would be apt to put it, photography that gives back.
This debate is not new. These voices are from people whose work on the horrors of war, of discrimination and of domestic violence also hangs in galleries in Chelsea and elsewhere. Is there substance to the point they are making?
Jim – Imagine the investigative reporter who won the Pulitzer prize this year declaring that the fiction winner was not a real writer “because these days you don’t know what is a REAL text and what is not.”
“When I returned to photographing Los Angeles in 2003 the United States was in an anxious condition following 9/11. I pictured this unease in moody, dark images of a closed off city in full daylight.”
Raphael – The current ICP exhibit asks “What is a photograph?”. How did you come to contribute images of the Glass House for this particular exhibit?
Jim – Carol Squires, my curator, selected my “Degradé” photographs, which are early color works. She wanted recent works to go with the “Degradés” and we both thought my “Glass House” would be a good pairing.
Raphael – Your sumptuous new book “James Welling Monograph.” published by Aperture and released last year, is put together in a very interesting way and covers every one of your bodies of work to date.
Jim – Yes it’s a wonderful book. Lorraine Wild the designer is incredible and she worked closely with Aperture and with the curator James Crump.
Raphael – Aperture’s release describes you as “enthralled by the possibilities of the medium”. What did it mean for you to put this book together, and what does the book portray?
Jim – I really wanted something comprehensive. It was a challenge to sequence all the works.
Raphael – You once said “photography is so distinctive that putting photography and art together is a mistake.” Can you expand on that?
Jim – Really? I don’t remember saying that. Perhaps what I meant was that museums or art institutions should consider having photography curators. Photography has a very special history that should be respected and not always blended with contemporary art. It should not loose its specificity. Think of the discussion in terms of this analogy: Photography is to contemporary art as architecture is to contemporary sculpture.
Raphael – Devon Golden said to you in an interview: “Someone would have to be very, very tuned into your work to recognize right off that a body of work is from you.” So, please tell us how one would know unequivocally that a body of work is from you.
Jim – Is my work really that different from Mike Kelley’s output, or from Kikki Smith’s or Charley Ray’s or Zoe Leonard’s in terms of diverse work? I make abstract photographs and I make geographically specific works. What holds my work together is “photographicality.” Photography is the binding force.
Raphael – Your wife is a seasoned filmmaker. Do you turn to her for feedback, is her presence felt in your work?
Jim – Yes, my wife Jane Weinstock offers me tons of advice about my work. She’s the first person to see what comes out of my studio and I value her opinion tremendously. Before Jane made films she wrote film and art criticism.
Raphael – After so many accomplishments, what does it all mean to you at this point?
Jim – I’m very grateful to have the resources and the time to make the work I want to make.
Born: 1951, Hometown: Hartford, CT, Lives and Works: Los Angeles, CA, Website:www.jameswelling.net, Education: MFA/BFA, California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, 1974, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, 1971
About The Artist
James Welling pushes the limits of photography with his continued exploration of the medium. Since the mid 1970’s he has explored photographic representation using an exhaustive range of photographic technologies and processes. Welling has created traditional gelatin silver prints, chromogenic prints, Polaroids, and digital pigment prints using cameras ranging from an 8 x 10 view camera to a digital point and shoot. In his recent photograms, he has used no camera at all.
Welling’s work has been exhibited internationally at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Pompidou Center in Paris, The International Center of Photography in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among many others. He was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in Documenta IX in 1992.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Raphael Shammaa. Images @ James Welling and courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.)