Little did he know — when he was taking Polaroids of a kitchen sink in a Santa Monica restaurant where he worked in the 1970s or when he captured on film crumpled pieces of aluminum foil and magically created mysterious landscapes — that he would one day be heralded as an artist of "singular accomplishment" by L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
Welling did, however, know this early on: "I always wanted to be an artist."
From now through August 26, visitors will be able to see how Welling, an associate professor of photography in UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture, has evolved artistically, as evidenced in his one-man exhibition, James Welling: Photographs 1974-1999, at MOCA's South Grand Avenue site.
As a teenager, he made frequent forays from his family's Connecticut home to galleries and museums in New York City. He studied drawing and painting at Carnegie Mellon University, then transferred to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. There, his focus began to shift.
"I moved from taking photos to document my work in sculpture, video and performance art to being interested in the photograph that resulted as a witness to those events," Welling says.
He taught himself photography using a 4x5 camera and large-format film that enabled him "to see the visible world in a fundamental kind of way," and to "understand what I wanted to do with it."
Among his early images were Los Angeles architecture shot at twilight or at night — luminescent windows in apartment buildings, rooftops with vent pipes against a darkening sky. From these, he moved on to photographing his great-great-grandmother's diaries and juxtaposing the images of her flowing, cursive handwriting with contemporary scenes of the countryside where she had lived.
Then followed the photos that, Welling acknowledges modestly, "I became sort of well-known for." His untitled photographs of crumpled aluminum foil spread out on a tabletop in his New York studio aligned him with a group of artists who were "thinking about the photograph as more than mere documentation," he says.
"There was an interest in what the photograph was doing, how it had meaning. The aluminum foil photographs were very important for me," Welling notes. Instead of a photograph "of something that's out there on the street," he says, here was a portrayal in black and white of "a constructed, imaginary world."
While Welling has delved into documentary photography, with subjects that include railroads as well as a lace factory in France, he finds himself repeatedly drawn to abstraction. His most recent work captures luminous light images - from towering skylights to glowing fluorescent light fixtures.
"I just wanted to go back to that mysterious indecipherability in some of the early photographs," he says of this recent work. "They're almost like dream images."