Photographer Interviews

James Welling On Drawing with Space and Light

January 29, 2016

By Brienne Walsh

James Welling’s new work, “Choreograph,” is a series of large-scale color photographs that features images of dancers digitally laid over images of architectural structures and landscapes in such a way that they resemble doubly exposed analogue film. The series was borne of chance. Welling was commissioned to photograph the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, which was designed by Philip Johnson in 1953; he began looking at archival footage of events that took place in the garden, and found himself drawn especially to the dance performances. Around the same time, he was experimenting in Photoshop with RGB color channels as a way to understand the basis of human vision, which is informed by receptors in our eyes for red, blue and green. “The way the [“Choreograph”] images came about is similar to the way that the roots of an apple tree are grafted with the stem of another species of apple to create fruit,” he explains over the phone from his studio. “I had this process of working with photograph RGB channels, and I grafted onto it the archival images of dance.”

The resulting “psychedelic” images, as he describes them, inspired him to begin his own independent series of images of dancers layered with architectural photographs. In his studio in Los Angeles, he held six different sessions where he had some of his students at UCLA, where he teaches photography, assume poses inspired by choreographer Martha Graham and the Ballets Russes. He photographed them using tungsten lighting and a digital camera.

He then digitally layered those images on top of photographs he had recently made in Florida of a Marcel Breuer building. The resulting images reminded him of the excitement of an accidental double exposure, an exhilaration that has all but disappeared with the advent of digital photography. It also opened up the intellectual possibility of exploring the intersection between choreography, which translates from ancient Greek into “drawing with space,” and photography, which is “drawing with light.”

“I was struck by the similarity of the words,” he says. “It was like there was a name for my project sitting there that no one had claimed.” By mixing architecture and dance, he was creating a hybrid—objects and movements first drawn by light (in his photographs), and then combined together to create surreal new landscapes. Welling, manipulating it all in Photoshop, was the creator (or drawer) of spaces that, depending on your frame of reference, look like visions from an acid trip or theatrical backdrops seen through 3-D glasses. They built on earlier series that played with light, exposure and architecture, such as “Glass House” (2006-2009), which featured Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The dancing added something new that he could experiment with—movement.

The project evolved from there. He began to photograph professional dancers from dance companies such as Abraham.In.Motion, Stephen Petronio Company, L.A. Dance Project and Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company. He layered those images with photographs he took of four buildings designed by Marcel Breuer, two by Paul Rudolph, and a variety of landscape photos made in Florida, Connecticut and Washington State. He’s been working on the resulting “grafted” images for about a year. The series, which is ongoing, currently consists of 30 prints that are each 42×62 inches—Welling considers the project only halfway finished.

In Photoshop, Welling creates up to five or six different layers. He works with global adjustments, manipulating them until, intuitively, he knows the images are finished.  Then, two studio assistants make final adjustments before they are printed. “I work until I get to the point where if I do one more thing, the image will turn to mud,” he says. “I love how many unpredictable things take place.”

Because he doesn’t want the images to be about specific dance companies or locations, but rather about the effect they have when combined, they are all titled with the numbers from their digital files, thereby leaving them open to interpretation.

Welling showed “Choreograph” at the Grand Palais during Paris Photo in November, 2015. A selection of the works was on view at David Zwirner in New York from November 18, 2015 — January 30, 2016. There, the images are hung in an installation designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm Johnston Marklee, behind a zigzagging wall that serves as a stage curtain for the exhibition. “It’s not radical, but it’s new,” says Welling of the installation. “Choreograph” will also be on view at Regen Projects in Los Angeles from February 20–March 26, 2016.

“The whole process of [making the images] has been very fortuitous,” Welling says. Some of his experiments fail. “There are some horrible pictures,” he confesses, “but there are also some miracles. As long as I get unexpected results, I’ll continue making them.”

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