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Discovering Uta Barth

Updated: May 5, 2023

I am excited to be continuing my journey of research into pioneering female photographers, showcasing their work as well as learning from their approaches.

For my second photographer, I have chosen Uta Barth. After researching Florence Henri’s work from the early 20th century, I wanted to look into a more contemporary photographer and trace their work over time, while looking for connections – if there are any – with Florence's image creation. Why have I chosen Uta in particular? Well it was someone that I had not heard of, and in a review of a recent exhibition, Loring Knoblauch says that Uta 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’, which sounded fascinating!

Installation view, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York City all work copyright © Uta Barth Studio 1992–2023, available on Uta Barth

Uta Barth was born in Berlin, Germany in 1958, and moved to USA at the age of 12 when her father went to Stanford University to do scientific research. Annie Curtis (2021) suggests that she felt like an outsider but soon embraced American culture. ‘Dark’ post-war Berlin replaced by the light, especially when she moved to California in her twenties. As an aside, I visited Berlin in my mid-teens and remember the stark contrast between the bright lights and lively nature of West Berlin and the greyness of East Berlin as I travelled through the checkpoints. Later in her life Uta frequently voiced her frustration with Los Angeles itself (she called it “the most alienating city I have ever been to,” in Bomb magazine, before conceding, “I cannot picture myself making work somewhere else”); her work relies on what she calls the city’s “visceral and blinding” light.

Uta studied art at the University of California, in Davis and then Los Angeles. Initially she was taking photographs as source material for her painting, but then became more fascinated by the way the camera could capture incidentals and draw attention to human vision. As Biscoff notes:

"Her photographs are abstract examinations of light and shadow. She is known for how she depicts vision and the difference between seeing with your eyes and looking through a camera lens. She explores visual memory, perception, literality, and the absence of clarity with her complex photos that are left up to individual interpretation".

Her work first emerged in the 1980s with self-portraits focussing on gaze. Uta creates series rather than individual images, which is something that I want to work on, and are often large-scale. Her series Untitled (1988-89) mixed Op-Art painting style with pre-existing images to create new images - a kind of collage/photomontage, and was followed by Ground (192-97) and Field (1995). These images were the start of her signature style - blurry backgrounds created by focusing her camera on empty foregrounds - breaking so many of the 'rules' of photography! The critic Van de Walle commented that Barth’s photographs, “by virtue of being pictures of nothing in particular, manage to be about a great deal indeed.”

Ground #70 1996 all work copyright © Uta Barth Studio 1992–2023, available on Uta Barth

Field #12 1996 all work copyright © Uta Barth Studio 1992–2023, available on Uta Barth

Like Florence, Uta continued to experiment and build on her techniques. One series in 1999 called nowhere near consists of twenty blurry images of the view from her window, taken over a year, followed by untitled (2002) which took one motif from nowhere near as a basis for new images. Uta also played around with the cliched topic of flower still life photography, like Florence, and in a series called Sundial (2007-08) she played attention to shadows and lights in everyday habitats.

I am interested that Uta, like, Florence, often turned her gaze to mundane, everyday topics, things in or around home, through windows, capturing for example fleeting moments, odd angles, what was reflected on the walls. It is also interesting that this has sustained over decades. But there was one turning point in her practice in the series to walk without destination to see only to see (2010). The gallery reviewer wrote:

Exploring both the continuing evolution and the origins of Barth's practice, the show juxtaposes new color photographs with a major series of previously unseen early black and white pieces. Although taken thirty years apart, these two distinct bodies of work compliment and contextualize each other, demonstrating the development of Barth's ongoing investigation of the nature of vision and the act of perception itself.

For her new series, Barth takes the camera with her on trips out walking, breaking with ten years of photographing exclusively in her own home. After a decade of rendering the ephemeral nature of light, time, and negative space in exquisite images framed and contained by her own domestic surroundings, Barth's decision to take the camera outdoors is both a literal and metaphoric step outside, one that pushes her practice forward and allows her to continue her exploration of how we see within a different set of parameters.

This description reminded me of the flâneurs engaging in a dérive, an unplanned journey in a psychogeographic approach.

Uta's next series, and to draw a bright line with light (2011) captured the mesmerizing play of light as she opened her curtains! But significantly, she intervened in the scene by moving the curtains to change the lines and curves - and included a photo with her hand doing just that.

...and to draw a bright white line with light (Untitled 11.9) all work copyright © Uta Barth Studio 1992–2023, available on Uta Barth

Compositions of light on white (2011) are also reminiscent of the work of the painter Robert Ryman who also experimented with white. In another and of time (2012) she focussed on the light coming in through her window onto her burnt-orange sofa at different times of the day. The bright light of Los Angeles is integral to her work.

And then I looked at her series In the Light and Shadow of Morandi (2017) and almost gasped - it was like pulling together lots of threads - in her work, but also in the research on Florence and Cezanne that I had already done in this journey. In previous series, there was often no subjects, no people, no landmarks, yet here although we do have objects, it is once again the play of light and shadow that is key.

In the Light and Shadow of Morandi (17.01) all work copyright © Uta Barth Studio 1992–2023, available on Uta Barth

In a review of this image for an exhibition Wenjie (Demi) Zhao writes:

The photograph depicts a series of vases and bottles arranged on a windowsill, each photographed from a slightly different angle and with different lighting conditions. By presenting multiple views of the same subject, Barth highlights the variability of perception and the ways in which our understanding of an object can shift depending on the context in which it is presented. The title of the work references the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, whose still-life paintings often depict ordinary objects in muted tones and soft light. Like Morandi's paintings, Barth's photographs are meditations on the beauty of the everyday, and the ways in which the act of looking can transform the mundane into the sublime.

and here is one of my images taken when exploring the ideas of Florence Henri - the light coming through the window, passing through a glass and making reflections on the wall. Following in the footsteps of giants, which is subtly reassuring for my developing photographer's eye!

And finally an exhibition in 2022 from dawn to dusk, where Uta took over 64,000 images over a year of the Getty Centre, focussing on the changing light in one location:

...from dawn to dusk. November2022 all work copyright © Uta Barth Studio 1992–2023, available on Uta Barth

Kate Palmer Albers, who has followed Barths' work from her earliest inceptions, wrote in a review of Barth's Peripheral Vision exhibition at the Getty's Centre in USA:

Among Barth’s great strengths is her ability to play with options, to present variations on a theme, not as variations in and of themselves but as a true reflection of and insight about how we look, and how it feels to look, again and again, over time.

Garielle Keung also wrote a review on that exhibition and she comments on the way that she manipulates the sense of depth and plays with camera angles to make us rethink the camera's relationship to its subjects, concluding that:

"Barth’s work is minimalistic and innovative; far from tawdry and ostentatious. By adding to or subtracting from an image, she changes our vision and brings new insights into the mundane, quiet moments of our days".

I have found this journey through Uta Barth's work to be revelatory and inspiring. Please follow the links in this piece to see for yourself the wonderful images that she has created over the past four decades and marvel at her vision and potential impact on the history (herstory!) of photography.

In my next blog, I will reflect on what I have learned by undergoing this process and start to capture some ideas in my own photographic practice.


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May 08, 2023

I am looking forward to reading the next instalment Valerie.

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