End Frame: James Welling on Paul Strand
March 29, 2013
© Paul Strand/Courtesy of Aperture Foundation & Paul Strand Archive
Throughout his 35-year career, James Welling, who’s profiled in our article “Tour de Force,” has combined content and craft to realize a diverse body of photographic work that investigates the potential of the medium and the “tension between seeing and making, and how the difference between the act of making changes what you’re seeing,” he says. Paul Strand was one of Welling’s early photographic influences, and both the content of Strand’s work and his attention to the craft of printing made impressions on the photographer when he was a young man.
Welling was first introduced to Strand by photographer and avant garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, who wrote about Strand in Artforum. Then in 1972, Welling saw a retrospective exhibition of Strand’s photographs, but it wasn’t until he encountered Strand’s book The Mexican Portfolio in the library of CalArts (aka California Institute of the Arts) that he “really got excited about his work,” he recalls. What stood out, Welling says, was the “conceptual pairing of [religious] statues, portraits and landscapes” in the book.
Welling was also impressed by Strand’s attention to printing. Strand made his Mexico photographs in 1932 and 1933, and hand-printed them using photogravure, a process that employs etched copper plates. After exhibiting the work, Strand created a book in 1940 using 20 of the images. In 1967 Da Capo Press re-released the work as The Mexican Portfolio, according to Aperture, which holds an archive of Strand’s work. Aperture is currently touring an exhibition of the 20 Mexico photogravures.
“I liked the way the pictures were so dark. I liked that they were gloomy and impressively printed,” Welling recalls. Welling began reading about Strand while he was at CalArts, where he studied Conceptual art with John Baldessari. He remembers that Strand “was not exactly a forgotten figure then, but coming out of Conceptual photography [studies at CalArts], Strand was the enemy because he was a modernist and believed in print quality … That really excited me.”