JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 photographic works, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in both the downstairs and upstairs gallery spaces.
The following works have been included in the show:
- 3 inkjet prints in lacquered wooden frames, 2011, sized roughly 19×22, 23×24, 24×23 inches, in editions of 6+2AP
- 7 sets of mounted color photographs (one with a single-channel video on custom built monitor), 2022, sized roughly 33×101, 33×123, 33×146, 33×191, 33×203, 33×224 inches, in editions of 6+2AP
- 2 chromogenic prints on panel, 1994, 1995, sized roughly 10×12, 28×30 inches, in editions of 8+2AP, 5
- 2 Ektacolor prints on panel, 1994, sized roughly 20×21, 39×48 inches, in editions of 8+2AP, 3+2AP
- 2 face mounted, raised, shaped archival pigment prints in artist’s frames, 2017, sized roughly 49×53, in editions of 6+2AP
- 1 set of 2 mounted color photographs, 2008, each panel sized roughly 30×38 inches, in an edition of 6+2AP
- 1 set of 4 mounted color photographs, 2007, each panel sized roughly 30×38 inches, in an edition of 6+2AP
- 1 set of 2 inkjet prints face mounted against matte acrylic, framed in painted aluminum frames, 2011, each panel sized roughly 38×56 inches, in an edition of 6+2AP
- 1 set of 4 mounted archival pigment prints, 2002, each panel sized roughly 21×26 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
- 1 set of 2 mounted color photographs, 2002, each panel sized roughly 21×27 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
- 1 framed color photograph, 1999, sized 35×44 inches, in an edition of 4+2AP
- 1 set of 2 framed color photographs, 1999, each panel sized roughly 23×29 inches, in an edition of 4+2AP
- 1 set of 3 color photographs, 1998, each panel sized 38×48 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
- 1 color photograph on panel, 1996, sized roughly 23×29 inches, in an edition of 8+2AP
(Installation and detail shots below.)
Comments/Context: In this particular moment in contemporary photography, it seems like we are once again in a battle to define what a photograph actually is. Of late, we are asking ourselves whether AI prompted images are photographs, or generative computational images are photographs, or NFTs are photographs, or certain kinds of video are photographs, and our answers are never quite as definitive or authoritative as we might like. The edges and boundaries of the medium are constantly in flux, which is a healthy thing, since it means photography is alive and actively being tested and extended by its artists; but this very process of reinvention also forces us to reevaluate which parts of the medium actually fundamentally define it as a distinct artistic practice.
It is against this backdrop of chaotic innovation on the photographic edges that Uta Barth brings us right back to the very conceptual core of the medium, which as it turns out remains surprisingly mysterious as well. For roughly the past forty years, Barth has been asking herself questions about the nature of seeing, and light, and optics, and the passing of time, and the way a camera mediates these things in its own unique way. Her images have never had much in the way of story or narrative, nor have they featured any people or characters; instead, they have calmly and meditatively watched the spaces around her, capturing the way the light falls across a wall or a human eye focuses and refocuses at various distances when looking out a window. Hers are the kind of pictures that will be mystifyingly empty of action for those that are looking for straightforward visual content to consume, but engrossingly mesmerizing to the others who let Barth’s patient observations spill out into subtle and thoughtful complexities.
This show delivers a smart mix of past and present, featuring a methodical body of new work (from 2022) backstopped by a selection of images going back to the mid 1990s to provide some aesthetic and historical context. As part of her recent retrospective at the Getty (here), the museum commissioned Barth to create a new piece using the distinctive Richard Meier buildings of the museum’s campus in Los Angeles as its subject. She selected a single location – a layered architectural scene of a white paneled wall, a side door, a slatted overhang, and the view down a balcony – and proceeded to make sequential photographs of this specific spot. Her dedication to the task was more persistent than we might normally guess – Barth made images of this same exact scene every five minutes from dawn to dusk on two days each month for an entire year, resulting in over 64000 exposures. These photographs became the raw material for a series of multi-image works, each dedicated to a particular month; seven of these aggregate monthly portraits are on view in this show.
The Getty buildings are a symphony of strict white geometries, and the powerful Southern California sun bathes the site in a never-ending palette of light and shadow. And of course, at different times of the year, the arc the sun takes across the sky changes, thereby reorienting the angles and intensities of the light that hits the very specific spot Barth chose to watch. So even though Barth imposed strict constraints on the scope of her vision for this project, the visual possibilities of the location and its ever evolving light were surprisingly broad.
Each month is depicted as a frieze of square photographic panels of varying sizes, the images interlocked into a thin sweep of imagery. Some of the squares offer a full view of the scene, watching as the sunlight passes through the slats, casting straight and then diagonal shadows across the architectural geometries. Others crop the scene down to just a fragment of the view, enlarging the patterns of light and their intersections with seams and openings in the walls. Still others reduce the scene to blur, reverse the tonalities, or wash the scene in throbbing red, like a view from inside your eyelids. And then darkness falls and the lights come on, and the scene changes again. From month to month, the views and angles change, and in February, Barth has included a time lapse video as one of the square panels, bringing almost imperceptible motion or progression into the mix. A turn around the gallery space follows the passing of time, each new criss cross pattern, color fade, or cast shadow a measurement of a specific moment. As a group, the works are like a watch or a sundial, the images measuring the subtle ways the light interacts with the building over an entire year.
It’s certainly possible to see this new Getty commission as a culmination of many of the ideas Barth has been exploring for decades, and the earlier works sprinkled through the other nearby galleries draw out those parallels and evolving interests. Mid 1990s images from Barth’s series “Ground” use the fleeting presence of the edge of a couch, a light fixture, or the edge of a wall to help define otherwise empty interior space, making the central white absence (and its subtleties of color shading) the subject of the pictures. A few years later, Barth introduced the notion of blur to various scenes, not as a representation of motion or movement, but a replication of a mist-like squint we use when approximating what we see. This then led to a deeper investigation of the focusing patterns of everyday seeing and looking, with diptychs and triptychs that place the focus in different planes, from say the frame of the window right in front of us to the view of the trees outside; these works are quietly meditative, forcing us to slow down and consider how it is we switch from one mode of seeing to another or how we scan across a view, eventually locking on something that interests our eye.
In the 2000s, and on into the 2010s, Barth pivoted slightly toward an interest in time, and in particular, how passing time manifested itself in light patterns cast by the sun across various rooms and objects. Often, she set up a before/after progression, or a sequential rotation through multiple frames, where we could watch as the light would slowly trace across walls and drape across furniture, the increments of time captured as splashes of bright rectangles or luminous strips. In 2011, she found a sense of sublime elegance in the rippled light patterns cast across curtains, the shapes undulating up and down with the passing of time. That same year, she watched as bars of light were cast across a view of sleek white closets and drawers, the geometries of architecture and brightness interacting and overlapping; these ideas are the ones most similar to the recent Getty commission, with architecture becoming a foundation on which light stories are then incrementally and iteratively built.
Armed with all these Barth-specific artistic backstories, when we return to the main gallery and the progression of time around the room, we can really see Barth flexing her aesthetic muscles and deploying her various tools with mature sophistication. As individual tiles, Barth’s images are consistently intriguing, as she sees the same space in a myriad of ways over time; but when she gathers the resulting pictures into extended groups, aside from the sorting by month, the logic of the arrangements and sequencing becomes a little less clear and resonant. The visual characteristics of each month are indeed subtly different, but the jittering rhythm of large and small blocks doesn’t organize the variant moods with much resulting resonance – staring at this single location for an entire year has produced a bouncing mix of ideas, rather than something more contemplative or reflective.
One way to think about what Barth is attempting here is that she has moved from shorter sequences of a few frames to a larger progression of 12 discrete months, and she has then built each month up as a grouping of images instead of just a single picture. So there are two layers of intensification and amplification going on, which may be why there seem to be a lot of moving parts and nuanced relationships to process. But maybe this jumping and refocusing is what Barth intended, making the constant refocusing and re-evaluating part of the experience, the one single place containing nearly infinite multitudes, ever changing with the passing of time. That’s an idea worth wrestling with more, and perhaps this first go round at expressing that visual and temporal complexity will lead to a new area of exploration for Barth going forward.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are generally priced between $20000 and $58000, with the recent groups of images ranging from $60000 to $115000 (with the video component). Barth’s photographs have become intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with auction prices ranging between $3000 and $38000.