Uta Barth b. 1958, Berlin
Acrylic lacquer on canvas
90 1/4 x 132 inches (228.6 x 335.28 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee, 1998
Uta Barth's hazy photographs occupy the territory between abstraction and representation. Their lack of focus has become something of the artist's signature, and it often elicits comparisons between her work and that of such early-20th-century pictorialists as Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Steichen. In some regards this association is apt, especially when one considers the matte surfaces and heavy wooden backing of some of Barth's photographs, which emphasize their presence as objects. Moreover, as in pictorialist work, light evanescently illuminates many of Barth's scenes and subjects. For the most part, though, the fuzzy glow of her pictures far exceeds that of her predecessors' photographs. Barth renders landscapes and everyday spaces all but illegible by employing an extremely shallow depth of field. In doing so, she ruptures the age-old emphasis in photography on the referent and instead turns her audience toward its own experiences.
As early as her series Field and Ground (both 1994–97), Barth began moving toward an emphasis on pure surface; often only the occasional detail could clue viewers into what they were seeing. In her series nowhere near (1999), she offers a clearly rendered object: the panes of her living-room windows, through which she shoots the surrounding landscape. Yet windows exist not to be seen, but to be seen through. In focusing her lens on the glass itself rather than the view behind it, Barth highlights the conceptual underpinnings of all her work: an examination of the act of perception. When she enlarges some photographs to epic proportions and arranges them in diptychs or triptychs, Barth effectively overwhelms viewers with an acute awareness of their own processes of seeing, very often by confounding their understanding of what it is they see. In their banal beauty, her photographs hold a mirror up to the limits of perception itself.