James Welling was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1951. He grew up in nearby Simsbury where, in 1963, he began to study art with Julie Post. In 1965 he took drawing classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and began to work independently in watercolor. Welling was deeply influenced by the work of Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper and most importantly by Andrew Wyeth. In 1968 Welling studied with Estelle Coniff at the West Hartford Art League, and frequently visited the Wadsworth Atheneum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, as well as galleries and museums in New York. From 1969 to 1971 Welling attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he studied with Gandy Brodie, John Stevenson, Connie Fox and Robert Tharsing. In the fall of 1970, he began a series of gray monochrome paintings, as well as a group of outdoor site-specific sculptures influenced by Post-Minimalism. At this time he also made his first black-and-white photographs, night exposures of Pittsburgh. In 1971 Welling transferred to the recently formed California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. At CalArts, he worked primarily in video and studied with Wolfgang Stoerchle and John Baldessari. Important visitors to Cal Arts who encouraged Welling’s work in video were William Wegman, Joan Jonas and Dan Graham. Baldessari was an important influence, and from 1973 to 1974 Welling was his teaching assistant. After graduation (M.F.A. 1974), Welling began to write reviews for Artweek. He continued to work in video and in 1975 “Ashes” was included in the Southland Video Anthology at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

In 1975 Welling started working with Polaroid material by making long exposures with a shutterless camera. In order to intensify the colors, he heated the prints during processing. These Polaroids, of his loft and of the restaurant he worked in, were exhibited at the ARCO Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, in April 1976. Following a casual remark by Matt Mullican, Welling bought a used Burke and James, 4 x 5 inch view camera. Welling had never formally studied photography, but in August 1976 he set up a darkroom and taught himself the rudiments of developing and printing. From 1976 to 1978 he made a series of architectural photographs of Los Angeles, which he presented as contact prints. In July 1977, he began “Diary/Landscape”: details of handwriting from his great-great-grandparents' 1840-41 diaries paired with Connecticut landscapes. He continued to work on these photographs until 1986. After moving to New York in 1978, Welling began to photograph aluminum foil, drapery velvet scattered with pastry dough, ink infused gelatin and plastic tiles. These four series of abstract images were exhibited in one-person shows at Metro Pictures, New York, in 1981, 1982 and 1985. The “Tile Photographs” were exhibited at Cash/Newhouse in 1985. Welling's work from this period became part of a larger critical evaluation of photography in contemporary art. Friends exploring similar photographic issues included artists Vikky Alexander, Richard Baim, Ellen Brooks, Ellen Carey, James Casebere, Sarah, Charlesworth, Barbara Ess, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Frank Majorie, Tim Maul, Allan McCollum, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons.

In 1984 Welling was awarded a grant in photography by the New York Foundation for the Arts. The following year, he received a National Endowment for the Arts individual artists' grant for a group of paintings strongly informed by fractal geometry. The paintings were exhibited in 1986 at the Cash/Newhouse Gallery in the East Village and in 1987 at Feature Gallery in Chicago and at Kuhlenschmidt/Simon in Los Angeles. At this time he worked as a freelance photographer in the Design Department of The Museum of Modern Art, New York and at Sotheby's. Welling returned to his interest in the nineteenth century (initiated in “Diary/Landscape”) with two series begun in 1987. In “Architectural Photographs/Buildings by H. H. Richardson,” Welling photographed the stone facades of Richardson’s later buildings. These photographs were exhibited in 1988 at Jay Gorney Modern Art, New York, and in 1989, in “A Forest of Signs” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “Railroad Photographs,” railroad landscapes of the eastern United States, were exhibited at documenta IX, Kassel, Germany; Jay Gorney Modern Art, New York; Galerie Nelson, Lyon, France; Donald Young Gallery, Seattle; and Nachst St. Stephan, Vienna, Austria. In the 1980s Welling also worked on two unexhibited series, “Interseries and “Fragments.” These anticipate some of the concerns of the Railroads, Richardsons, and subsequent works.

In 1986, Welling began a series of color photograms made with shadows, titled “Degradés.” Two years later, he began photographing brown drapery with the 20 x 24 inch Polaroid camera in New York. The Polaroids and “Degradés” were exhibited at Christine Burgin Gallery in New York and in the BiNational at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He had his first one-person show in Europe in October 1987 at Galerie Samia Saouma, Paris. This exhibition began a creatively rich sequence of projects in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and England. In the early 1990s, he had survey shows at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland; the Musee de Rochechouart, Limoges, France; and Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway. He completed three book projects during this period: “Les voies ferrees, St.-Etienne et la plaine du Forez” (1990), on the first French railroad line; “Usines de dentelle” (1993), on lace factories in Calais, France; and “Wolfsburg” (1994), on the Nazi origins of the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.

In 1992 Welling began “Light Sources,” his first series to incorporate a wide range of American and European subjects. Presented as large Iris prints, “Light Sources” marked his first use of digital technology. “Light Sources” was shown at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, in 1994 and in subsequent gallery exhibitions in New York, Toronto, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna, Tokyo, and Munich; and in in 1998 at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, Lucerne, Switzerland, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, and in 2000 at the Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. "Light Sources" was originally published as a book in 1996 by Imschoot, Gent; an expanded "Light Sources" was published by SteidlMACK in 2011.

After teaching briefly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Bard College, Welling moved to Los Angeles in 1995 to head the photography area in the Department of Art at UCLA. In Los Angeles he began to work with Muse [X] Editions, an innovative lab specializing in digital printing. In 1998 he returned to abstraction with “New Abstractions,” a series of enlarged photograms. These were exhibited at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Donald Young Gallery, Chicago; Galerie Xavier Hufkens, Brussels; and Gorney, Bravin + Lee, New York. In 1999 Welling was awarded the DG BANK-Forderpreis in photography for “New Abstractions.” At the same time he began “New Abstractions” Welling also started an on-going group of works, “New Landscapes” (subsequently re-titled “Connecticut Landscape”) where he returned to places that were important to him in his teens and twenties. The majority of these pictures were made with an 8x10 inch view camera with a few pictures in 4x5 and 6x7 formats. In 2000 Artforum asked Welling to produce a portfolio of photographs and in order to accommodate their square page layout, Welling printed the black frame edge of the negative on a larger black square.

Teaching at UCLA (his first extensive teaching experience) profoundly changed Welling’s relationship to photography. UCLA’s photography area was founded by Robert Heineken, an artist who worked extensively with photograms. After Welling moved to Los Angeles, he began a sequence of photograms, starting with “New Abstractions.” Subsequent photograms include “Mystery Photographs, 2000,” “Screens 2005,” “Flowers 2005-2008” and “Torsos 2005/2008.” Torsos were exhibited at the 2008 Whitney Biennial and at David Zwirner, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Nachst St. Stephan, Vienna. At UCLA Welling changed the photography curriculum from black and white to color. This made it possible for him to work more intensively with color materials. In 2005 he completed “Hexachromes,” made by sequentially exposing the same sheet of 4x5 film through red, green, blue, cyan, yellow and magenta filters. Following “Hexachromes,” Welling photographed Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT, with color filters from 2006-2009. “Glass House” was shown at Nachst St. Stephan, Vienna; Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; David Zwirner, New York and Maureen Paley, London. At the Glass House, Welling made three video works, “Lake Pavilion”, 2009, “Sun Pavilion”, 2010 and “Glass House Cross Dissolve”, 2010. “Glass House” was published in 2011 by Damiani Editore, with texts by Sylvia Lavin and Noam Elcott.

In 2009 Welling received an “AICA Award of Excellence for the Best Show In A Commercial Gallery Nationally 2007/2008” given by the International Association of Art Critics, United States Section, for his 2008 exhibition at Regen Projects.

Following “New Abstractions,” Welling produced two additional bodies of abstract, geometric work in 2005, “War” and “Quadrilaterals,” using the program Maya. In “War” Welling created an imaginary landscape that he destroyed and then photographed. “Quadrilaterals,” also using Maya and Photoshop, were based on a series of 20x24in black and white Polaroids of four-sided shapes. In recreating the work in Maya, Welling produced facsimile images of the Polaroids in vector space. In 2009 Jacob Samuel produced some of the “Quadrilaterals” as intaglio prints.

In 2002 Welling was invited to participate in The Hudson Valley Art Project initiated by Diane Shamash. Welling’s contribution, “Agricultural Works/Insect Chorus” was made in collaboration with his brother Will Welling, a musician, who wrote music for Welling’s photographs of farms in the Hudson Valley.

In 2009 Welling collaborated with poet Susan Howe to create “Frolic Architecture.” The ten photograms that accompany Howe’s poems were created with acrylic paint and mylar. The project was published in 2010 by The Grenfrell Press. "Frolic Architecture" was included in "That This" published by New Directions for which Howe won the 2011 Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

In 2010 Welling began a project based on the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.