James Welling: What is a photograph?

I begin here a brief look at some of the photographers / artists whose work was included in the What is a photograph? exhibition, NY, 2014, discussed this week.

James Welling:

Welling is an American artist with an extensive history of image-making using various forms of photography. His early work in the 1970s comprises Polaroid photographs, taken in his place of home and work. The instantaneous nature of this medium belies the considered way in which Wellling seems to have worked at this time with carefully framed images such as Restaurant Sink and Marble Counter (1976).

James Welling, Marble Counter, 1976

James Welling, Marble Counter, 1976

Restaurant Sink, 1976 Polacolor print

James Welling, Restaurant Sink, 1976

In the mid to late 70s, self-developing Polaroid cameras were at the peak of their popularity and since these early works Welling seems to have continued moving and changing with new ideas and technologies.  Recently, his projects have included digital manipulation with Adobe Photoshop to create multi-layered colour images, and use of AfterEffects.  Welling’s work is very often abstract as he explores and pushes the medium of photography. “I’m trying to work with and work around all of those decisions that are built into photography” (Welling in Balaschak, 2008).


In 2017, a 1930s film was brought to the present by Welling in a project that bridged art with the technologies of photography and cinema, also merging moments of history and family stories.

“… a work that incorporates a short 16mm film his grandfather, William C. Welling made of the Atlantic Ocean in Ogunquit, Maine. W. C. Welling shot the film in order to paint a seascape from it. Eighty five years later Welling sampled the colors from his grandfather’s painting and colorized the original film footage using After Effects. To complete the film, Welling’s brother, Will Welling, composed a soundscape using three accordion tracks and beach pebbles on a large drum.” (jameswelling.net/biography)

James Welling, from Seascape (2017)

James Welling, from Seascape (2017)

Welling’s website is extensively populated with examples of his work from the 1970s to the current digital era, always twisting and turning the idea of what a photograph is.  The structure of the website offers an interesting insight into his adoption of technologies as they have changed and developed, too, and his broad interest in so many styles and approaches.  This quote from S.M.A.K. gallery in Belgium seems to perfectly sum up Welling’s approach to his work:

“Welling’s photographic practice is comparable with that of a “ventriloquist”, as he himself once described it, meaning that he embraces many artistic languages through the filter of photography.” (SMAK gallery, 2017)

References – all accessed 29th January 2019:

Balaschak, C. (2008), Abstract, representational and so forth: An Interview with James Welling. Available at: http://jameswelling.net/assets/uploaded/pdf/balaschak_chris_interview_octopus.pdf

Welling, J. (1976) Marble Counter [Polacolor print]
Available at:  jameswelling.net/early-work

Welling, J. (1976) Restaurant Sink [Polacolor print]
Available at: jameswelling.net/early-work 

Welling, J. (2017) Seascape [Image from video], S.M.A.K. Gallery,  Available at https://smak.be/en/exhibition/10738


Other artists featured in the What is a photograph? exhibition, 2014:

Matthew Brandt
Marco Breuer
Liz Deschenes
Adam Fuss
Owen Kydd
Floris Neusüss
Marlo Pascual
Sigmar Polke
Eileen Quinlan
Jon Rafman
Gerhard Richter
Mariah Robertson
Alison Rossiter
Lucas Samaras
Travess Smalley
David Benjamin Sherry
Kate Steciw
Artie Vierkant
Christopher Williams
Letha Wilson