Spontaneity and Materiality: What Photography Is in the Photography of James Welling

Art History 42 (1):154-76 (2019)
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Images are double agents. They receive information from the world, while also projecting visual imagination onto the world. As a result, mind and world tug our thinking about images, or particular kinds of images, in contrary directions. On one common division, world traces itself mechanically in photographs, whereas mind expresses itself through painting.1 Scholars of photography disavow such crude distinctions: much recent writing attends in detail to the materials and processes of photography, the agency of photographic artists, and the social determinants of the production and reception of photographs. As such writing makes plain, photographs cannot be reduced to mechanical traces.2 Yet background conceptions of photography as trace or index persist almost by default, as no framework of comparable explanatory power has yet emerged to replace them. A conception of photography adequate to developments in recent scholarship is long overdue. Rather than constructing such a conception top-down, as philosophers are wont to do, this paper articulates it by examining selected works by James Welling.3 There are several reasons for this: Welling’s practice persistently explores the resources and possibilities of photography, the effect of these explorations is to express a particular metaphysics of the mind’s relation to its world, and appreciating why this metaphysics is aptly expressed by exploring photography requires a revised conception of what photography is. In as much as it provides a framework for a richer interpretation of Welling, the new conception is also capable of underwriting a wide range of critical and historical approaches to photography.
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