PRINT May 2001


I’m not sure how I got to these places, but I realized they were pictures about summerness, fullness-deep, complicated spaces.” —James Welling

I’M TRAVELING MENTALLY, THE WAY I USUALLY DO, FROM A LUSH MARSH, to a secluded road, to a chain-link fence, to a tower and abandoned railroad tracks. In the hush of these intensely static photographs, I concoct associations that bridge the four disparate, ordered views. Order breeds narrative, but I stop myself. Pictures don’t tell stories, people do, and every interpretation is an exposure.

Uneven black borders, part of what’s pictured, threaten to spill, like ink, over the putative views. Their reality could be obliterated. “The black border is the shadow of the film holder,” Welling told me, “the reality as opposed to the illusion. It’s about materiality, which is a kind of valueless death, the thingness of film.”

These photographs are part of a larger project Welling began in his home state, Connecticut, in 1997. “It’s still evolving and hasn’t been exhibited,” he says. “But it relates to my most recent work, the ‘New Abstractions,’ representing a parallel if very different track.” Appearance and illusion, the reality of the camera and darkroom, perception and a world external to us, what we see or think we see, have been at play in Welling’s elegant photographs since the ’70s. His subject matter shifts from abstraction to documentation: crumpled aluminum foil; drapes; shadows; light sources; trains, tracks; trees; industrial sites; views outside his studio. His work questions any assumed differences between abstraction and representation, between modes of presentation.

Studying Welling’s variety and range is a curious experience; the more you look, Yogi Berra might have said, the more you see. Welling’s photographs are objects in themselves, beautiful compositions that also gloss and comprise a history of photographic practices. Almost every idea its apparatus offers has been noted, somewhere. “From the beginning,” Welling observes, “there was a dichotomy: the shadow of the object and the representation of the object, the two great historical poles that are photography’s foundation.” He tells the medium’s Manichaean history, ingeniously enlarging it with work that loves and ironizes both sides of the argument. Take this portfolio: Each photograph documents a real place and presents a view (Welling thought of Edward Weston when he took up the 8 x 10 view camera to do these); but the image—and its conventions—is draped in mourning black. In effect, Welling lavishes us with illusion and shatters it, too, simultaneously dispensing a shot of contemporary ambivalence to the mighty image.

I oscillate within the dissonance, but proceed, longingly, into imaginary spaces. There’s room for stories, memory. A tiny body of water in Salt Marsh provides a start. From there, I wander into the woods and vanish. I find Route 81, where Cindy Sherman’s Hitchhiker might have waited. Walk on until New Haven. Fenced out or in, I peer through the bars, spying a picture within a picture. But I’m blocked, so reaching the tracks, Devon Tower, is a relief. Escape. But does the train still stop here? Am I traveling into lostness? Where did everyone go?

Lynne Tillman

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