essayZara Sigglekow

James Welling 'The Waterfall', Bowerbank Ninow

essayZara Sigglekow
James Welling 'The Waterfall', Bowerbank Ninow

The Waterfall, from James Welling’s Drapes series, exists at the nexus of influences. Hinting at conceptual practice, minimalism, abstraction, and reverence for the “thing,” this photograph also resonates with veiled emotional excess and disquieting calm. Although it would undoubtedly be classified as modern, with contemporary elements, the expressive qualities of this work have parallels to artistic practices from earlier periods. Welling was consciously influenced by nineteenth century poetry, and, while not stated as an influence, the use of drapery to educe emotion in The Waterfall is comparable to its use in paintings by northern renaissance artists, in which the abstract forms created by folds of clothing conjure up religious sentiments of pathos and reverence.

Welling has been described as a “self-reflexive” photographer; his oeuvre includes quietly composed shots of trains and architecture, photograms, and experiments with colour. [1] Although influenced by conceptual practice, he eschewed the matter-of-fact objectivity of the photograph as document, as well as the transparent objectivity of street photography, as championed by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.[2] Gravitating towards Modernist photographers such as Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, Welling has declared an interest in “subjectivity, style and gesture,” and “opacity as opposed to transparency.”[3] He is also concerned with the capacity photography has to elicit emotion, as this series of works depicting drapery and phyllo dough demonstrates. Welling said of this series: “It’s extremely hard to put a literal description on them, but they seem like pure emotion. Maybe not ‘pure’ emotions but strong emotions.”[4]

Art Historian James Crump writes that Welling’s interest in “perceptual processes and the psychology of perception”[5] is what drew him to photography, and in particular what Rosalind Krauss describes as “holding the referent at bay, creating as much delay as possible between seeing image and understanding what it is of.”[6] Welling was also influenced by the nineteenth century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, in particular his ability to provoke feelings—longing, anxiety and happiness—through equivocal images built with words.[7] It is the instance between looking at the photograph and comprehending its referent that an abstract impression and emotional resonance occurs: in The Waterfall the large and languid forms created by the drapes, and the delicate flakes that rest at the bottom of the image, become ambiguous visual metaphors for the viewer’s own emotional responses. The work’s power is located within this slippage between affect and realism.

The emotional poignancy resonating through the drapery of this photograph can be compared to the treatment of clothing in Northern Renaissance painting. Although such works depict figurative scenes from biblical stories, their isolated details act as abstract forms that induce a pious emotional resonance. In Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (c. 1435), the figures surrounding Christ are swathed in cloth that flows into folded forms, creating isolated instances of abstraction. During this historical period, humanity’s internal spiritual life was of primary importance,[8] and the undercurrent of abstract forms in these works acts as a subtle rhythmic correlation of this theme. The drapery in The Waterfall carries a similar emotional heft, albeit as a reflection of the private act of looking, as opposed to the public spirituality of Northern Renaissance art. Welling expertly creates a unique visual language that feels atemporal: speaking to both the past and the emotions and mystery of the present.


[1] Saul Ostrow, “James Welling at David Zwirner”, Art in America 69, no. 1 (January 2008), 124

[2] James Crump, in “Ventriloquisms: The Art of James Welling” in James Crump Eva Respini, Mark Godfrey, Thomas Seelig, and James Welling, James Welling, Monograph (New York: Aperture, 2013), 59.

[3] Ibid, 60.

[4] Welling quoted in Charlotte Cotton, Alex Klein, and Jason Evans, Words without Pictures (New York: Aperture, 2010), 460.

[5] James Crump, in “Ventriloquisms: The Art of James Welling”, 55.

[6] Rosalind Krauss, “Photography and Abstraction,” in A Debate on Abstraction(New York: Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, 1988), p 66. Krauss’s emphasis. Quoted in James Crump, in “Ventriloquisms: The Art of James Welling”, 55.

[7] James Crump, in “Ventriloquisms: The Art of James Welling”, 65.

[8] E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its origins and character (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 247