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“The camera sort of teaches you to see in a really different way and to experience your environment in a different way, and to pay attention to the act of looking.”
Photographer Uta Barth’s photographs focus on the act of looking. She has long been interested in creating images in which there is no discernable subject, but rather the image or light itself is the subject. Barth’s conceptual photographs examine how we see and how we define foreground and background. Her series are often long-term engagements; she photographs the same place over many months, or even years, to understand how light changes a space over time. She recently completed a series at the Getty Center taken over the course of a year and comprising over 60,000 images. Barth has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
In this episode, Barth discusses her approach to making images through several of her bodies of work including Ground, Figure, and her new Getty series. Her career will be the subject of a retrospective at the Getty Center in fall 2022.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
UTA BARTH: The camera sort of teaches you to see in a really different way and to experience your environment in a different way, and to pay attention to the act of looking.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with photographer Uta Barth about her work.
Uta Barth is a contemporary photographer whose work explores the nature of vision. Her compositions are abstract, evocative, and atmospheric to focus attention on both literal and metaphorical modes of perception. Her photographs intentionally depict mundane or incidental settings, and she often returns to these settings over long periods of time. In one recent series, she photographed a space at the Getty Center for a year.
Born in Germany, Barth received her BA from the University of California, Davis and her MFA from UCLA. She lives and works in Los Angeles today.
She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – a so-called Genius Grant – in 2012 and is currently preparing for an exhibition that will open at the Getty Center in November 2022.
Well, Uta, thank you for speaking with me on this podcast episode. Now, you and I met over a decade ago, when I was director of the Art Institute of Chicago and you had an exhibition there. I was struck by what our curator said of your work when she wrote, “She is perhaps less interested in where the camera is pointing than the art of looking through the lens in the first place.” What do you think she meant by that remark, and how do you take that remark now?
BARTH: Hi, thanks so much for having me, Jim. The remark is probably sort of a retelling of various quotes of mine that float around in various books and through the internet. I’ve talked a lot about, um— like, conventional photography always seeks out a subject. And in many photographs, the subject and the content of the work are one and the same. And I became interested in what happens when you make a photograph that has no central subject when you take the subject away and you simply look at the container that surrounds the, you know, anticipated subject and kind of analyze and experience that container or environment in and of itself. So I think she was talking about that I constantly sort of remove subject and subject matter, also out of a desire of wanting you to be immersed in your own activity of seeing and trying to completely, like, immerse yourself in your own activity of looking, without being distracted by subject matter or thinking about subject matter.
CUNO: Now, you seem to take photographs in sequence, that there are bodies of work. There’s the Field work and so forth. How do you do that? Why do you do that?
BARTH: Well, throughout my career, I’ve had sort of one central interest, which is to make work that is about vision and visuality, and about looking and being looked at, and about sort of the opticality of vision; and the comparison between the human eye and the camera lens, as well. So those are the themes that run through everything I’ve made.
But for every body of work, I sort of seek out a different aspect of those questions, a different aspect of vision, and try to articulate that. So they are like chapters in a book, in a way, you know?
CUNO: Now, when did you first make pictures, and what were you trying to say by the making of them?
BARTH: I started making photographs my first term in college. And you know, I think at that time, the role models of choice were people like Edward Weston and Minor White. And I think I sort of made work much in that vein. And I became interested in making images out of sort of details of whatever environment I happened to be in or be walking through that you normally overlook. The camera sort of teaches you to see in a really different way and to experience your environment in a different way, and to pay attention to the act of looking.
So from the very beginning, I was interested in these kinds of peripheral events and interested in articulating them and pointing towards, like, these interesting things are happening all around you all the time and we just don’t see them very easily.
CUNO: Now, you were born in Berlin and you studied in UCLA for both your BA and MA degrees, taking your MA, I think, in 1985. With whom did you study at UCLA and what was UCLA like at the time?
BARTH: I actually went to undergraduate school at UC Davis and then graduate school at UCLA. And UCLA was a great program when I was there. I worked a lot with Charlie Ray, and there was man named Howard Singerman, who was teaching theory and contemporary art history, and who had a huge impact on me. It was sort of the first exposure I had for thinking about artwork in a much more critical, theoretical vein.
And my undergraduate education had really no contemporary art history whatsoever. Art history ended with the Impressionists. And so anything that I knew about contemporary art, I’d learned from, like, sitting on the floor of the stacks in the library and just pulling down one book after the other and sort of, you know, absorbing things through osmosis that way.
But at UCLA, early postmodern theory was very much in vogue and, you know, made a big impact on me. Conceptual art was still very much discussed and of interest to people. I mean, it was a very conceptually based program.
So I worked with Charlie Ray, I worked with Howard Singerman. Robert Heinecken was the head of the photography department. And while I don’t think Robert Heinecken had any influence on me in terms of his work—I think we were interested in really different things—he had a lot of influence on me in terms of a person and also in terms of being a teacher. Like, he taught his students to sort of take themselves seriously in a way that’s really necessary as an artist, and, again, made a really big impact and sort of focused my attention on what I was doing.
CUNO: What brought you to the US and how old were you when you arrived?
BARTH: What brought me to the US? My father was a chemist, and he came over to work as a postdoc at Stanford University. And we then ended up staying here. So I went to high school— I came over when I was twelve, but I went to high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then went off to college at UC Davis, and then down to LA.
CUNO: Now, your photographs explore the surfaces and edges of the visual word. I’m thinking of the Ground series from the 1990s, pictures like Ground #36, where the milky white of the walls claim the space of the room; or Ground #3, where the blurring of the focus claims and flattens the distance of the landscape. Tell us about those pictures, what you were trying to do in those pictures.
BARTH: Well, the Ground series really was motivated by looking at portrait photography and looking at the kinds of conventions that exist in historical periods of photography, and also different sort of modes of photography, for how one frames a portrait. You know, what’s in the background of a portrait? What does the background tell you about the person who’s being photographed? How does the background information change your attitude or your assumptions about that person?
So I had looked a lot of old Hollywood images, portrait glamor photography, and I looked at, you know, everything from, like, book cover jackets to fine art photography. And I just wanted to see what happens when you make those same kinds of pictures, but you take the sitter, the person who’s being photographed out of the scene and you just simply look at the container that’s left behind.
CUNO: What about the depth of field in your work? How conscious are you of the depth of field?
BARTH: People always say, like, “Oh, the out-of-focus work.” But they are perfectly focused, but they’re focused on a plane in space that is not occupied. You know, they’re focused where a sitter would be sitting, but that person now has stepped out of the scene, and what remains in the image is the out-of-focus background to that point in space.
CUNO: How do you choose what point in space to concentrate on?
BARTH: Well, you sort of imagine the scene. You know, where would you pose somebody in this environment? Where would they be sitting if you were making a portrait? When I made the very early— the first Grounds, I had such a hard time.
You know, I’d made photographs for quite some time at that point, and I had this sort of instinctual kind of compositional sensibility that I ended up sort of composing these things perfectly, as if there was— you know, without a sitter there. And I finally needed to take a friend with me and have them pose in the scene and then take them out of the scene, in order to make sport of some slightly awkward compositions that would normally be balanced out by the sitter.
CUNO: What about the role of color in your work?
BARTH: Well, the color photographs, the color, you know, becomes really— I think we become aware of the color in my work because it is out of focus. So it takes, you know, detailed information and blurs it, and it just becomes this wash of, you know, saturated color, which is something that we’re not used to seeing in photography, you know?
I mean, we’re all used to seeing out-of-focus backgrounds in film and in certain kinds of advertising photography here and there, but we’ve never really thought about it as an image in and of itself very much. So by removing the subject in those works, you end up looking at the color; you end up looking at the color of the light, also, and what the light is doing in the space.
CUNO: Now, there’s a sense of quieting the imagery in your photographs, the like street scenes in Field 20, 23, and #9, where typically busy streets and street corners are silenced by the camera. Is that what you intended by that?
BARTH: Again, I think it might be sort of a factor of the scenes being out of focus, that all of that kind of information is washed away. You know, the Field series was based not so much on portrait photography, but on cinema and on the assumption that there would be a moving subject, and also that the camera would be moving. So there’s a different kind of blur, and the compositions kind of bleed off the edges of those images.
Making them was sort of like being a location scout. I would drive around and I would try to find locations that lacked specificity. You know, that didn’t have some kinda signage or billboard or whatever. And then that whatever information was there, I could blur enough to indicate what it was, without giving you, like, specific details. So there is a stillness to those images, I think, due to that.
CUNO: What kind of camera or cameras do you use?
BARTH: Until I started shooting with a digital camera, I shot with a Pentax six-by-seven my entire career, which was a great camera. It was incredibly simple. I’m not interested in sort of camera gear for the sake of camera gear, so I just wanted a really simple camera.
And the Pentax was really affordable because the lenses for it weren’t very sharp. And since I wasn’t interested in sharpness, that was just fine with me. So that’s what I photographed with.
CUNO: How do you make your pictures, and how long do your pictures take to be made?
BARTH: Well, most projects end up being photographed over a period of nine months to a year, because I’m interested in sort of tracing the changing of the light and how that happens not only throughout a day, but also throughout the year.
And from the very beginning, I would always— You know, since I can’t really see very well what the image is going to look like when I’m making it, I would just shoot a lotta, lotta film. I just overshoot everything, in order to, you know, hope that something will turn out. So for every image that I would make, I’d shoot, like, twenty different exposures that would be bracketed and framed differently, et cetera, in order to have a lot of options, so—
CUNO: Do you shoot yourself, or do you have an assistant with you?
BARTH: Well, in recent years, I work with an assistant or assistants. For example, for the Getty project, I had a crew up at the Getty doing most of the photography. But the early work, I shot entirely by myself. It’s just, like, lately, projects have become more technically complicated, so they kinda require more than, you know, one pair of hands and—
CUNO: Well, we’ll get to that in a second, but I wanna know more about how and why you mount your photographs on panel.
BARTH: Mounting on panels started with a body of work that I made shortly after graduate school, in which I made groupings of images that juxtaposed painted imagery, with photographic imagery, with found photographs with photographs made in the studio, with advertising photographs. I was interested in sort of just juxtaposing and equating all these different ways of making images.
And you know, in the art world, there’s this funny kind of hierarchy. You know, a painting is better than a drawing; a drawing is better than a photograph; a photograph made in the studio is better than one— You know, it just goes on and on, in terms of certain kinds of importance ascribed to different ways of making imagery, which I found really ridiculous.
So I made these groupings of work that would juxtapose all these things and present them as if they were identical. So all of ’em, since some of them were paintings, they had to be on panels. And so then I mounted the photographs to, you know, to match the display process of the painted images. So that’s how I started mounting on panels.
Although it came to sort of haunt me later because people, with the Ground and Field series, people said, like, “Oh, mounting them on panels was just, like, a nod that they were just like paintings.” Which I thought was a silly way to think about it, ’cause if I wanted to make paintings, I suppose I would’ve made paintings, you know?
CUNO: What kind of panels do you use?
BARTH: They’re just wooden panels. They’re Masonite that’s coated with a plastic surface that acts as an archival barrier, and then they’re just wooden frame backs.
CUNO: Now, you often reproduce the pictures in your books or catalogs without titles printed on the page. Why is that?
BARTH: Well, I have the same desire for exhibitions; I don’t like titles next to the work. You know, I think of everything as an installation. And I think of a book as being sort of an extension of that. So I want the page to be like a clean, white wall. I don’t want cluttered information right next to the image, because I think reading and looking are two very different experiences. And so I try to remove everything on a book page that isn’t absolutely necessary to be there.
The book that you’re probably referring to on the Grounds actually has titles on the opposite white page, you know, running sideways at the edge of the image, but very minimal.
CUNO: Very minimal, indeed. It seems sometimes you have pictures that play off each other when they’re in the fold. So you’ve got a picture on one side of the fold and a picture on the other side of the fold. You must taking into account they’re gonna be seen together.
BARTH: Yeah, whenever possible, I try to avoid printing books like that. You know, the MoCA catalog, for example, has images only on the right-hand side of the page. There are certain juxtapositions that made sense to me because there were certain images that were exhibited together or as small groupings. So there was a logic for that. But whenever the budget allows, I like printing on just one side of the page in order to, again, like, be able to isolate the image.
CUNO: Now, you’ve been making pictures in and around your house for some time now. And critics have said they suggest the poet Emily Dickinson and her poetry. What do you think of that comparison? And is it conscious on your part?
BARTH: Well, I’ve been photographing in my house for over twenty-some years, out of a desire to sort of counter this assumption that as a photographer, one goes out into the world and searches out a subject and then photographs that subject.
So I wanted to make photographs about where I am, wherever I happen to be most of the time, and about the visual environment that I occupy and observe on a daily basis. I was interested in the, you know, being really familiar with that, you know, wanting an environment that I was really familiar with and that I could see in the slightest changes of light, et cetera.
So it’s important to me that the photographs were made in my home to sort of drive home the point that I don’t need to go out to photograph, that vision happens wherever you happen to be, not somewhere out there in the world only. And so it’s sort of like a conceptual decision to do that.
CUNO: Now, about five years ago, the Getty commissioned a body of work from you for the Getty, with the Getty as your subject, looking at the Getty. What was it about the Getty that inspired you to make this body of work?
BARTH: Well, I’d been in a show at the Getty about twenty years before then, and I remember spending a lot of time up there at that point. Somehow, we managed to have passes and could go up when it was closed to the public, and really spend a lotta time in all the galleries and on the whole campus.
So when I think about the Getty, I always think about the light of the Getty. You know, unlike any other place that I know, the light— I don’t ski, so I assume it would happen if you ski. But at the Getty, everything is white, reflecting light right at you from every direction, including from the floor, you know? It’s like you need to— you can’t, like, hold up your hand to block out the sun; you have to hold it underneath your chin to block the sun as well, so— I just have a very visceral sense of the experience of this intense light that surrounds the entire location.
CUNO: And is it the light alone or is it the light, the way it plays off the stones?
BARTH: Well, I mean, like I was saying, the light, obviously, is being reflected off the stone everywhere. But for the commission, I was interested in finding a place where the light and the architecture intersect in a certain way, where the architecture attempts to mold the light or consciously addresses the way that the light can move around a certain location.
So I heard, like, I remember when the Getty was being built, there was talk about the Getty actually originally was supposed to be even whiter than it is now—I mean, it’s very off-white now—and that the neighbors complained and insisted that it be toned down some. Is that correct?
BARTH: I can’t imagine it being even brighter than it is now, it’s— I experience I as extremely bright, you know, and blinding. In a wonderful way.
CUNO: In a wonderful way, indeed. Now, what about the role that light plays in making visible what you’re interested in making visible?
BARTH: Well, I wanted a location that was pretty, you know, sort of, quote/unquote, “humble.” I’d looked at a lot of images of the Getty, and I didn’t wanna repeat any of the sort of glamor shots of the Getty, any of the, like, really dramatic kind of locations or angles, points of view. I wanted someplace pretty ordinary.
But again, I wanted a place that was about the intersection of the light and the architecture. So I found this little wall that had this whole display of light that happened throughout each day. And then I became interested in tracing it throughout an entire year, to watch what happens, how it changes throughout an entire year.
CUNO: So just so it’s clear to the people listening to this, you chose a particular segment of a wall, and you’ve documented that segment over the course of a year, how it changes in the daily light over a year. Is that right?
BARTH: Yeah, that’s correct.
CUNO: Yeah. So how did you make it? I remember you mentioned that you had assistants. I remember them sitting around a long time, waiting for the images to appear. How did you make them?
BARTH: Well, what we did is, you know, we found the locations, we figured out the exact angle of view that we wanted, and we photographed the location from dawn to dusk, every five minutes, with a GigaPan camera, which is a camera that renders these incredibly high-resolution files, because it takes the image and photographs it in about— I think there are, like, twelve images, twelve frames per image. So it’s shot with a medium-format camera, these twelve frames that get stitched together into one gigantic file. And it’s just the largest, sharpest file you can make as a photographer. So we recorded the location at least one day of every month, for the entirety of a year. And those images will appear in the exhibition as a timelapse video, and take you throughout the entire sequence.
CUNO: How many photographs will the series comprise?
BARTH: Oh, I think there’s slightly over 60,000 images.
CUNO: But how many will be shown in the gallery?
BARTH: Oh, I’m sorry. Will be shown in the gallery. I don’t really know the exact count. There are groupings. There’s seven groupings. Each grouping probably has, like, about seven to nine images in it, maybe ten. So probably around seventy.
They’ll be, like, flush mounted, face mounted to white acrylic. So the acrylic is about an inch thick, and the mounting and the display of the work is very much in mind with the Getty’s— Richard Meier’s interest in the grid.
I was sort of— I was amazed and obsessed by the fact that the grid is absolutely everywhere. In the very beginning, I wanted to sort of make images that were, you know, maybe not quite as precise as the architecture is. And I was looking for locations where the grid might not be, and there aren’t any. It’s absolutely everywhere, which was amazing. So I ended up sort of adopting that kind of presentation of gridded groupings of work. And the mounting is also sort of like stonework. And they’re not framed or anything like that.
CUNO: What kind of light will be used in the galleries?
BARTH: Oh, that’s a sore point. Obviously, the photography department pays a lot of attention to archival issues, and the photography department has the lowest foot candles of any area within the museum, which basically means the light levels are lower there than anywhere else. So for photography, you need very little light, in order to preserve the images from fading. And not only are the lights very, very dim, they’re also very warm lights, very yellowish lights.
So normally, when I do exhibitions, I light my work really brightly. First of all, I print a lotta things into the work that is only visible if you see it under bright light. And then I also want the experience of, like, looking at the work to be somewhat akin to the experience of having made the work in those, you know, light environments. So— But that’s not gonna be able to happen here. You guys have very, very strict regulations about light levels.
CUNO: We want the work to last.
BARTH: Yes, exactly.
CUNO: Yeah. So after this, what’s next for you?
BARTH: I have two gallery shows after this, in February of ’23; and then one at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, and one at 1301 PE, here in Los Angeles. And then after that, we’ll see.
CUNO: Well, Uta thank you for talking with me about your pictures and the process of making them. We look forward to seeing the Getty photographs in all their glory soon, so thank you very much.
BARTH: Thank you so much, Jim. It was really lovely for you to have me. Thank you.
CUNO: Uta Barth: Peripheral Vision will be on view at the Getty Center November 15, 2022 to February 19, 2023.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
UTA BARTH: The camera sort of teaches you to see in a really different way and to experience your...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824