Artist James Welling has been making photographs for twenty-five years. Trained in LA, he moved early on to New York City to show with Pictures artists. In the mid-90s he returned to Los Angeles to head UCLA’s photography department.
JB: When did you first start making photographs?
James Welling: I started to take myself seriously as a photographer in 1972. It was my junior year in college.
JB: You once made a comparison between cooking and photography.
JW: Well, both require wearing aprons. Also both involve a lot of stainless steel. The sequence in cooking from the steam tables to the grill, to the broiler, to putting the order out for the waitress or waiter is like the sequence in photography: you start with the developer, move onto the print washer and finish with the dry mount press.
Jay Batlle: Were you thinking about the relationship between cooking and photography while you were living in New York, or L.A., or both—and where were you cooking?
JW: I had my career as a cook in L.A. I didn’t do much cooking in New York. There’s much more of a discriminating palate in New York, and I wasn’t a very good cook.
JB: What drove you to move to New York?
JW: A lot of my friends had moved, and there wasn’t that much of an art scene in L.A. as far as I was concerned. My friends were telling me about a lot of interesting artists in New York, such as Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman.
“I was invited to be part of the original Metro Pictures group…recently I’ve been thinking about how little my work looks like a lot of those artists’.”
JB: Were you friends with any of those people before you moved to New York?
1980 Opening Group Show 15 November–3 December: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Michael Harvey, Thomas Lawson, William Leavitt, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, James Welling, Michael Zwack
JW: I used to go to New York in the summer. That’s how I met Cindy and Robert in 1977, just after they moved down from Buffalo. I was also beginning to meet this sort of scene that eventually showed at Metro Pictures with Helene Wiener. That gave me the heave-ho to leave Los Angles and move to New York.
JB: Were you part of the Pictures thing that was happening in New York? You showed with Metro Pictures, correct?
JW: I was invited to be part of the original Metro Pictures group. I mean there were the Pictures artists, that were a much larger group, and then there were the artists that showed at Metro Pictures. I was more or less part of both, even though recently I’ve been thinking about how little my work looks like a lot of those artists’. I was interested in recycling images in media or using some of the tropes of commercial photography. It exuded a lot of pressure in my thinking—a positive pressure that pushed me to do certain things.
JB: I would say that some of your work was about an intentional appropriation of certain iconic images or styles from early 20th century photography. I’m thinking of the Railroad Photographs or the Diaries. Did you see it that way?
JW: When I started taking photographs I became interested in the way that the technology of the camera had a built-in history, so that when you take certain cameras you get certain types of
photographs. At least, that is what I was sensitive to, it’s not true for all photographers. I just had a heightened sensitivity to that idea, and so in a way I appropriated certain photographic styles. I think that is what you are getting at with your question.
JB: Yes, and I feel this trend in your work has persisted, along with your interest in the process of making photographs. Did you think of your foil photos (Untitled 1980–1981), in relation to the work you are doing now? I’m thinking of the color Degradés or the photos shot through screens shown at David Zwirner in April 2005?
JW: Yes, it is thinking about different ways of depicting optical reality through a lens and straightforward camera system. It’s like thermal photography or other sorts of forces working on light sensitive surfaces. With the aluminum foil photo I was interested in making something extremely clear, but also extremely vague. You could see them as clear, sharp abstract photographs, but it was very difficult to understand what they were of. I think I continued that sort of fascination with making things that are difficult. They are not difficult to see, but difficult to understand.