Form Follows Function
James Welling — Maureen Paley 13th April - 22nd May 2011
Review by Eugenie Shinkle
Photographic formalism has had a rough ride for the last few decades. Championed by MOMA curator of photography John Szarkowski, formalism dominated photographic criticism throughout the 1960s and 70s. Though the formalist edifice began to crumble towards the end of the 1970s, Szarkowski remained devoted to the cause until the end of his career. In his 1989 Photography Until Now – his final book as curator at MOMA – Szarkowski maintained, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that ‘most photographers of ambition and high talent would prefer today to serve no instrumental functions.’ In contemporary academic circles, formalism has come to stand for a self-contained and deeply conservative approach to picture-making; as an analytical approach, it is widely regarded as a dead end.
Szarkowski’s own understanding of formalism was shaped in large part by his 1956 study of the work of American architect Louis Sullivan. By the 1930s, Sullivan’s famous quip – ‘form follows function’ – had become the clarion call of modernist architects on both sides of the Atlantic. Although function was commonly understood as the utilitarian purpose for which a particular object or structure was intended, Szarkowski favoured a more nuanced interpretation of Sullivan’s dictum. Embedded in his apparently simple claim was a more esoteric notion akin to a natural law: function, Sullivan proposed, was linked to the way that the essence of things took shape in their material form. If all media function according to their essential nature, then the purpose of photographic form, Szarkowski reasoned, was to explore the nature of photography itself.
James Welling has been exploring the nature of photography since the mid-1970s. Rather than formalist introspection, however, Welling’s work draws together modernist approaches and conceptual practice via the investigation of photographic process. Historically, and in their own ways, both formalism and conceptualism interrogated photography as a medium – the first preoccupied with the formal qualities of the image, the second with the idea of the photographic itself. Welling has long maintained that he is more interested in the physical and technical properties of photography than in the subject or content of an image per se. Spanning 30 years of practice, the two bodies of work shown at the Maureen Paley Gallery offer a glimpse of some of the ways that Welling has explored photographic process to extend modernist notions of the relationship between the form and nature of images.
Displayed in the ground floor gallery are a series of inkjet prints of black-and-white work produced in the 1980s. Shot on a large format camera, the images of draped cloth and crumpled filo pastry are precise and coolly self-contained. Welling made similar studies around the same time, using tinfoil, gelatin, and plastic tiles. Superficially, the images appear to sit comfortably within the Szarkowskian domain of modernist art photography. What is less immediately evident is Welling’s subtle subversion of modernist expectations around photographic meaning. The subject of these images is intended as nothing more nor less than the transcription of light and shadow: the modernist obsession with depth of meaning is replaced here by a deliberation on surface.
Produced between 2006 and 2009, Welling’s colour photographs of Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House extend these considerations to digital photography. The Glass House (a term Johnson often used to refer to the entire group of ten buildings that occupy the 47-acre site) is an icon of modern architecture – a reduction of the idea of dwelling to its most schematic elements. Welling, however, doesn’t view the house itself as a particularly revolutionary piece of architecture. His interest lies in its function as a ‘lens in the landscape’ – a kind of extension of the photographic apparatus, rather than a photographic subject in and of itself. For Welling, the Glass House acts as ‘a direct statement of transparency and of reflective surfaces’ – its function, here, is less architectural than photographic.
The images were shot on a digital camera, but Welling produced the spectacular colour effects in ‘analog’ fashion, by inserting colour filters, diffraction filters, and various pieces of glass and plastic between the lens and the subject at the moment the image was taken. The effect of these interventions is profound. The Glass House was designed to blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape; Welling’s images introduce radical colour shifts between structure and ground, creating a kind of artificial horizon that uncouples the house from its setting. Other images, saturated with reflected light and acid-bright washes of colour, smash the buildings to fragments and scatter them over the picture surface.
Against the technical precision of the black and white images, Welling’s colour photographs foreground the chromatic aberrations, edge effects, noise, and other artifacts of the digital printing process. For Welling, digitization is part of the nature of the photographic, and he regards such effects not as flaws, but as moments ‘where the digital becomes visible’. The question of the digital transformation of photography’s essence is posed here by paying attention to the way that the traces of the digital process are manifest on the surface of the image itself – not, as is more often the case, in relation to photographic truth, or in terms of its distance from the ‘craft’ of analog photography.
Welling has never confined himself to a particular type or style of photography, and his work evades easy categorization. For Szarkowski, photography’s essential nature started and ended with the image. Welling, for his part, interrogates the idea and the nature of the image through the production of photographic form, and in this sense, he is perhaps best described as a kind of empirical formalist, for whom photography – as a wealth of historical and contemporary techniques – acts as a kind of laboratory for investigating questions around photographic form and function, representation and abstraction, product and process.