The Genius Series: MacArthur Winner Uta Barth

Checking with one of the local winners of the annual MacArthur “genius grants”

[In this occasional series, we check in with the local winners of the annual MacArthur “genius grants.” Previous entries have focused on worm neuron expert Elissa Hallem and microbe aficionado Sarkis Mazmanian.]

Most of us pick up a camera to capture an image or preserve a moment. Conceptual photographer Uta Barth shucks this common usage and purposefully shoots photos that lack a subject. Like the moments after waking up from a dream, her photographs are blurred, sometimes off-center, unframed, subject-less visions.

The Mar Vista resident, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in October, says in her artist statement, “We all expect photographs to be pictures of something. We assume that the photographer observed a place, a person, an event in the world and wanted to record it… The problem with my work is that these images are really not of anything in that sense, they register only that which is incidental.”

In her images, which she usually shoots in or around her home, Barth commonly focuses on a point in between the camera and the background, at a place where a subject might normally be. This eliminates any story lines, forcing viewers to contemplate not what they see but how they see.

Barth’s preoccupation with perception is apparent in her most recent series, and to draw a white line with light, where she manipulated the curtains in her home then photographed the rippling waves of light that shone through.

Her innovative use of a traditionally narrative medium helped Barth the MacArthur Fellowship. 23 people, from an astronomer and a neurobiologist, to a mandolinist and a documentary filmmaker, were named as fellows in 2012, receiving $500,000 with no strings attached.

Barth’s windfall will allow her to work uninterrupted on her latest project, which she is tentatively calling In the Light and Shadow of Morandi. She plans to continue her exploration into drawing and composing with light by focusing on the shadows and reflections created by glass vases and bottles. The award will also allow Barth to digitally archive all of her negatives before they begin to fade, and to prepare for her upcoming 2013 show at the Los Angeles art gallery 1301PE.