When photography is considered formally

By | May 29, 2019

When photography is considered formally, light is considered its foundation. James Welling’s exhibition, “Sources of Light,” debunks two common assumptions about light in a formal frame: firstly, that it is a harbinger of spiritualism, and secondly, that it is integral to making a photograph “interesting” by granting it conventional visual appeal. Like decoys, Welling’s exhibition of photographs may at first be mistaken as dull and meaningless until one becomes aware of the wry critique of light’s importance to Modernist photography that is taking place.

Welling’s exhibition comprises black-and-white photographs of eclectic subjects ranging from vernacular landscapes to nearly abstract architectural forms. An array of images including a lighthouse, a train station ceiling, and a close-up of a fluorescent light are already diverse; however, their many differences are further accentuated by their various scales and compositions.

High contrast printing is immediately brought to mind by photographs concerning light, but Welling instead employs a wide array of tones, so in most photographs a particularly rich greyness prevails. Despite this depth of tone, Welling presents light in either an unflattering manner, or he merely signifies light’s existence in absentia. There is an intentional banality to his photos that is often aided by their subject’s blandness. Since photographing material such as tin foil and jello in the mid-eighties, Welling has, for sake of low-key satire, depicted the remarkable, well, unremarkably.

The very ordinary American subject of apples is pursued in Daylight (1994), which comprises a display of unappetizing apples photographed at such a close range that nothing else may be seen. The photograph’s flatness is striking, a flatness constructed by the greyness of the image and by the two-dimensional nature of a composition lacking a backdrop or any depth of field. With such flatness, every single surface detail is generically stressed, which, in turn, subdues any emphasis on light hitting the apples. A further result of this clinical approach is an indifference to the subject, for which the obvious but tasteless solution would have been an exposure or printing dramatizing the sunlight or “daylight” hitting the apples, hence transforming the photo into a homey, apple-pie image. Here, indifference works to great effect due to lack of options.

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