Fotograf Magazine

James Welling

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

When I look at the Glass House photos by James Welling, I have a similar feeling as Murray did standing before “the most photographed barn in America” in White Noise by Don DeLillo. In Welling’s photographs, the Glass House (built in 1949), gets lost behind its own representation, like the barn in the novel. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”1 In Welling’s pictures, the Glass House gets lost from the conventional viewing angles that we know from repeatedly reproduced photographs of the house – they are the “signs” from Murray’s monologue. Thus, the Glass House becomes a metaphor of the representation itself, not only as a previously known image of itself, but also by its own disposition – the transparency of the glass walls or the present framing of the view inside the house – and last, but not least, as a copy of a special as its origins may be seen in the later completed Farnsworth House (completed in1951) designed by Mies van der Rohe. Welling makes the house even more transparent when he speaks of it as about a “lens” that focuses and directs the view of the whole plot where it stands with other Johnson–designed buildings. The Glass House is alone in front of the lens, but it’s also an extension of Welling’s camera.

Just as it is impossible to read the passage from DeLillo’s novel unambiguously as a critique of representation, the role of Johnson’s house in Welling’s photographs is ambivalent as well. On the one hand, the house becomes a transparent base for the photographer’s experimentation; on the other, its patterns are multiplied into the surface of

Welling’s photographs. Therefore, the layers of color filters and reflexive materials cannot be perceived only in connection with Welling’s previous projects and his general interest in color, but also in connection with the principles of layering the plans in the viewing angle inside the house and while looking at it, or layering the historical references throughout the complex of the buildings on the land.

The layering of transparent materials, which takes place between the camera lens and the house as a lens, is then the key moment in the creation of Welling’s photographs. In this context, the Glass House photographs are a record of a performative event taking place at the time the photo was taken. This is where Welling draws our attention and also reveals his presence in the photographs. Again, we can go back to the Glass House as a building where the framing of our view outside the house and the present image is being constantly transformed with every movement inside the house. Just like Murray in DeLillo’s novel talks about people taking pictures of the barn, we can say that Welling is photographing photography.

This performative moment can be tracked in Welling’s work for a long time, beginning with his studies at CalArts in the 1970s. Welling experimented with the technical limits of early video, staging banal performances in front of the camera. In one video, for example, he uses a a banal gesture of uncovering and covering the lens with his hand, making the afterimage of the lights the camera is aimed at visible at the moment the lens is covered. Welling worked along similar lines in his projects preceding the Glass House, when he took photos using six color filters and multiple exposures (Hexachromes, 2006 or his later Maison de verre, 2009). Welling’s exploration and experimentation with the moment of taking the photograph can also be observed in his work with photograms. Let us mention, for example, his beginnings, when he made photograms of his own hands (Hands, 1974–75), his more recent works, such as Screen (2004), when the photograms result from a combination of grids when exposing the paper, or Fluid Dynamics (2012), where we see a photogram of the moment when the photographic paper was pulled out of the water.

In Welling, we encounter a long-term concentration on the place and time before the actual photograph is taken, and on the performativity of this moment of creation. Taking into account his interest in the role color plays in vision as well as in photographic materials and, consequently, his parallel work with abstract and documentary photographs, we can witness his intense contemplation over the means and possibilities of imaging using a photographic medium at the elementary level of creating an image. 


Jan Kolský



1 DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Viking, 1985, p. 72.