Field #20 is a large, wall-sized canvas onto which a photograph has been printed in acrylic. It was commercially produced by Folio D, San Diego California, who used a high-resolution dot jet printer to transfer the digitally scanned image onto the canvas. It is a unique photographic print and has not been computer manipulated in any way. It is the largest work to date by Barth and was created, together with Field #21 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) specially for a Wall project at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1997. The scale of these two works was partly determined by the space in which they were to be exhibited at the museum. Field #20 is derived from a photograph of a street corner taken deliberately out-of-focus and with a shallow depth of field. At a superficial glance, the image resembles an abstract design of muted browns and greys out of which red traffic lights, expanded by the out-of-focus effect, blaze dramatically. At the Museum of Contemporary Art the two Fields were installed in the windows and created a disorientating effect through their scale and blurred appearance. Close-up they look like an abstract composition of coloured dots and from a distance the street scenes they depict appear distorted as if seen through wet or partially opaque glass.
Barth has been making images using out-of-focus photographs since the early 1990s and began her series of Fields in 1995. For her previous series of Grounds (begun in 1992) she first used a collaborator to stand in the foreground of the composition. She focussed the camera on this subject who then moved out of the frame, leaving the ‘empty’ background as the new subject of her photograph. Grounds depicts mainly indoor settings and is based on still-camera photography, exploring such pictorial notions as composition and cropping. In the Fields Barth began to experiment with the more filmic possibilities generated by moving the camera while taking the photograph. The result is even greater abstraction and a fusing of space and light. Barth has stated:
The Fields … are clearly pictures of other places, outdoor scenes and at best double as a screen within the gallery environment. They … imply movement both by the camera and whatever activity that is motivating the image. One has a sense of being made aware of one’s peripheral vision, of what you see when you turn your head toward something, of what you might see while in motion.
(Quoted in Conkelton, pp.19–20.)
Barth is based in Los Angeles and has been influenced by the film industry. The monumental scale of Field #20 relates it directly to the cinema screen. Barth has explained:
Most [of the Field images] are based on some visual device I have observed in a film, but they are not literal re-creations of a particular scene. … I do have certain styles of filmmaking in mind when I go out to photograph. I end up driving around various neighbourhoods of the city looking for a place that is general, neutral enough to not interfere or visually compete with what might take place in the foreground … it is kind of like location scouting. It is not random: I am definitely looking for a place that has very particular, ‘atmospheric’ characteristics.
(Quoted in Conkelton, p.22.)
For Barth the primary effect of the blur in her photographs is to make a specific image generic. She has commented: ‘Specificity of time and place drop away and one starts to think about the picture, as much as what it is of.’ (Quoted in Conkelton, p.18.) By eliminating the traditional object of a photographic image, Barth challenges the viewer to locate him or herself in relation to the work. She has said, ‘my primary project has always been in finding ways to make the viewers aware of their own activity of looking at something … by straining your perception of things that are barely visible, in some instance depicting purely light itself’ (quoted in Conkelton, p.23). Photography is dependent on space and light. Barth makes these her subject, rather than the means of viewing something else.
Uta Barth, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles 1995.
Sheryl Conkelton, Russell Ferguson, Timothy Martin, Uta Barth: In Between Places, exhibition catalogue, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle 2000, pp.69 and 172, reproduced (colour) pp.90–1 and cover.