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Truth, wonder in photography


Photography since 1970 has been dominated by two contradictory trends: one toward the "straight" tradition of modernist realism, the other toward the subversive, debunking pastiches of postmodernism.

James Welling, whose meditative photographs of commonplace objects and everyday scenes are the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, straddles the divide between these conflicting impulses with a serenity that seems completely natural and unforced.

The exhibit covers Welling's work between 1974 and 1999, the equivalent of several photographic lifetimes for many fine art photographers, who usually can be expected to produce only about a decade's worth of truly original work during their careers.

On the evidence of this show, Welling has fared better than most, in part because he really does have a good eye and impeccable technique, and in part because the postmodernist mania for recycling old images into new ones makes many of his pictures seem fresher than they actually are.(Another reason, I suspect, is that Welling's work is big - many of the prints are 20-by-24 inches or larger - and in a contemporary art world that often seems to equate size with importance, the sheer scale of his pictures appears to make a statement.)

But this isn't necessarily a criticism. The number of things that can be photographed for the purpose of producing works of art is finite, and by now most of them have been tried in one form or another.

Welling has produced some wonderfully suggestive photographs of crumpled tin foil and several arresting abstractions based on the direct exposure technique of the photogram (which reproduces the outline of objects, but without the illusion of depth or surface.) But for the most part, he has trod ground already well-ploughed by others - buildings, machines, architectural interiors and landscape.

What's significant is the way he approaches these subjects, which perhaps can best be described as a combination of childlike curiosity about the world coupled with a deep humility in the face of its enduring mysteries. For example, in Welling's photograph "West, 1997," two separate bands of ruler-straight steel railroad track gradually converge as they approach the horizon. In the far distance, the viewer can just make out the point at which they come together with what feels like the wistful inevitability of a kiss. Ultimately, Welling's picture of lonely railroad tracks ends up being as much about the pain of separation and the mystery of love as it is about the conquest of nature or the triumph of the machine.

It's this attitude of open-minded inquiry and profound reverence for the simplest visual facts, rather than any purely formal considerations, that to my mind raises Welling's art above the usual run of mere "rocks and trees" pictures.

Welling produces works in series on particular themes or subjects. The BMA show presents several of these extended essays, including Welling's series on American railroads, factory interiors, Los Angeles architecture and a wonderful group of small photographic mementos that is part landscape and part personal diary based on handwritten entries of the artist's great-great grandparents in rural Connecticut.

These pictures rarely strive for effect. They are merely beautiful and true, records in the manner some 19th-century traveler might have made of the wonders he had witnessed during a protracted journey. Welling persuades us that wonder still inhabits our world, too, if only we can summon the patience to see it.

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