Subtle Bodies

March 21st, 2013  |  Published in *, March 2013

Subtle Bodies 

Denise Burge


“It’s not that I don’t care about content, but content is not the only way a photograph has meaning.”1
~ James Welling

James Welling


The photographic work of James Welling is recognized for its pictorial elegance, and often described in terms that suggest the mystical.  This sense arises from the viewer’s awareness of the photographer’s hand in the process, and from his emphasis on the evanescent nature of the medium.  Welling uses the receptivity of the sensitized surface to create a space of play between present and past “presence”.  The images that result don’t show us things or even spaces, but instead encounters: the moment at which a sensitized surface receives whatever is in front of it.  Open the shutter and the universe comes in.

Kaja Silverman, in her book Threshold of the Visible World, states that by simply viewing (and as a result, being viewed), all sentient beings in the world are constantly in a photographic state, simultaneously posing and gazing.   Our bodies, by adapting to our place in space,  “resituate onto a nonhuman category some of the gestures by which the subject offers him-or herself to the gaze already in the guise of a particular ‘picture'”.2  Additionally, when we view a photographic image, whether still or moving, our sense of presence loses ground, and we enter various loops of ‘here’ to ‘there’.  One loop reflects the act of perception itself.  Christian Metz describes perception as a double movement:

I have the impression at once that, to use a common expression, I am “casting” my eyes on things, and that the latter, thus illuminated, come to be deposited within me…A sort of stream called the look, and explaining all the myths of magnetism, must be sent out over the world, so that objects can come up this stream in the opposite direction…3

Another loop takes the viewer between his/her physical surroundings and the space depicted in the photograph.  Once a photograph is ‘taken’, once the surface inside the camera (or on the enlarger table) is exposed, present and past are fused- locked together in liminal space.  The fleeting moment is made ever-present, even monumental. But the viewer enters a state of simultaneity, experiencing kinesthetically the space of the picture while still feeling the weight of their body, the humidity of the air, and all the other senses of ‘real’ space.  Jean-Louis Baudry wrote of this sensation:  “And if the eye which moves is no longer fettered by a body, by the laws of matter and time, if there are no more assignable limits to its displacement- conditions fulfilled by the possibilities of shooting and of film- the world will be constituted not only by this eye but for it.”4

In the mid 20th Century, structural filmmakers (acknowledged by Welling as an influence) and the theoreticians that supported them sought to foreground the mechanism of photography and cinema, focusing on materiality and the perceptual impulse.  They critiqued the lens-based machine, which reinforces perspectival conventions from the Renaissance, and limits our modes of visuality.  Our primary viewing relationship, therefore, is not with the world, but with the camera itself.  Some artists saw this not as a limitation, but as a revelation of new possibility.   By emphasizing the camera as a machine with an organic nature of its own, photographers could begin to address the camera as something that could be worked with, and even as a subject in itself.  Filmmaker Stan Brakhage sought to re-mystify photography, writing passionately about the possibilities of this approach.  He described the cinematic screen as a “sweating flaring rectangular body” and the lens as an “eye capable of any imaginings”.5  He advocated for a return to a primal, magical relationship with imagery, using film as a physical, malleable, material with which the artist and viewer could have a relationship.  Welling’s work clearly reflects this attitude towards the photograph.   His abstractions achieve what Brakhage described as the magic between the trick and the effect.  In a 2004 interview, Welling stated, “A photograph records both the thing in front of the camera and the conditions of its making.” 6   Describing his Glass House series, Welling makes  clear that the blankets of color are simply light hitting the lens through colored filters that Welling holds before the camera, at the moment of exposure.  Viewing one of these images, one can feel in one’s own body the awkwardness that this arrangement must have entailed–one imagines looking through the lens while reaching beyond the camera, trying to act, see, and capture simultaneously, the wonder of being ‘with’ the camera.  Welling describes his decision to start including the black border of the negative in his prints:  “I began to realize that the edge of the negative represents the shadow of the camera, the opaqueness of matter.  It casts a shadow on the negative, so it’s a photogram as well.” 7   This acknowledgement and inclusion of the camera’s physical presence transforms the image into an encounter.   His camera-less work has a similar effect on the viewer, partially because Welling does not hesitate to reveal the process behind the imagery.  Viewing the series Flowers, one can imagine the artist in the darkroom placing spring flowers onto the surface of the sensitized film.  The painterly battlefields of Fluid Dynamics recall the heroics of Abstract Expressionism, yet once again reference the camera by using sampled colors from his Wyeth series for the abstract color gradients that hover behind the shapes.  In this sense, the camera is simply another source for material, rather than an end in itself.  And the dynamic of light, the essence of photography, becomes the magic catalyst.

A camera cannot take a picture of anything in the world. Once we let go of the desire to see reality via the camera, we can appreciate what the camera can produce. Welling’s work is optimistic in this way; by seeing ‘with’ the camera and with the photosensitive surface, he is retraining our sense of being in the world and in the world of images.


Denise Burge

1. Noam M. Elcott, “The Shadow of the World.” Aperture magazine, No. 190, Spring 2008, pp.30-39.

2. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World, New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 200.

3. Christian Metz, The Imanginary Signifier, Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1982, pp. 45-64.

4. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”, Film Quarterly magazine, Winter 1974-75, pp. 39-47.

5. Stan Brakhage, Essential Brakhage:  Selected Writings on Filmmaking, Kingston, N.Y.: Documentext, 2001, pp. 14-15.

6. Golden, Deven. “James Welling.” BOMB magazine, Spring 2004, pp. 35-43.




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