James Welling was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1951. His father worked for Connecticut Printers as a salesman and his mother taught physical education. He grew up in Simsbury where, in 1963, he began to study art with Julie Post. In 1965 he took drawing classes at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, and also began to work independently in watercolor, painting in the fields behind the family house in West Simsbury. 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 Athenaeum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery. At this time Welling also began to read Artforum and to visit galleries and museums in New York City.

From 1969 to 1971 Welling attended Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where, in his first year, he studied with Gandy Brodie, a second generation Abstract Expressionist. Brodie introduced Welling to the work of Matisse, Klee and Mark Rothko. On a field trip to New York City in October 1969, Brodie brought the class to Rothko’s studio on East 69th street. In February 1970 Welling saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform in Pittsburgh. Moved by this experience he began to study modern dance at the University of Pittsburgh under Jeanne Beaman. In 1971 he performed in Doris Humphrey’s The Shakers, as well as in a graduate student thesis project. The following summer Welling studied dance with Truda Kaschmann at St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford, and attended performances by Rudi Perez, Paul Taylor and Anna Halprin at American Dance Festival in New London.

In his second year at Carnegie-Mellon, Welling studied with John Stevenson, Connie Fox and Robert Tharsing and began to make Super 8 films and explore minimal and post minimal art. In August 1970 Welling created a mobile sculpture, hung in a maple tree, which he documented in Super 8 film. Four months later, Welling began a series of gray monochrome paintings, and 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 Cal Arts, he worked primarily in video and studied with Wolfgang Stoerchle and John Baldessari. Visitors to Baldessari’s class included Hilla Becher, William Wegman, Joan Jonas and Dan Graham. Baldessari was an important influence, as well, and from 1973 to 1974 Welling served as his teaching assistant. At Cal Arts Welling made two 30 minute video works, “Second Tape” and “Middle Video.” Close friends at Cal Arts included Marcia Resnick, Suzanne Lacy, David Salle and Matt Mullican. Welling’s MFA thesis exhibition in April 1974 consisted of appropriated magazine images as well as his own black and white photographs. After graduation, Welling began to write reviews for Artweek, created a series of sculptures using coat hangers, worked on collages made from magazine images and created photograms of his hands. He continued to work in video, and in 1975 his “Ashes” was included in the Southland Video Anthology at the Long Beach Museum of Art. In 1975 Welling also performed in Joan Jonas’s Organic Honey Vertical Roll at LAICA in Century City.

That same year Welling started working with Polaroid film, making long exposures with a shutter-less camera. In order to intensify the colors he heated the prints during processing. These Polaroids, of his loft in Venice and of the restaurant he worked in, were exhibited at the ARCO Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, in April 1976. Following the advice of Matt Mullican, Welling bought a used Burke and James 4 x 5 inch view camera with a 127mm lens. In August 1976 he set up a darkroom and taught himself the rudiments of developing and printing. From 1976 to 1978 he made photographs of his friends and of architecture, which he exhibited 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. “Diary/Landscape” was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago and published as a book in 2015.

After moving to New York City in 1978, Welling began to photograph aluminum foil, drapery velvet scattered with pastry dough, ink-infused gelatin and plastic tiles. These abstract images were exhibited in one-person shows at Metro Pictures, New York, in 1981 and 1982. “Tile Photographs” were exhibited at Cash/Newhouse, New York, 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. These paintings were exhibited in 1986 at the Cash/Newhouse Gallery in the East Village, and in 1987 at Feature Gallery, Chicago and at Kuhlenschmidt/Simon, Los Angeles. At this time he worked as a photographer in the Architecture and 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 three series begun in 1987. In “Architectural Photographs/Buildings by H. H. Richardson,” Welling photographed the stone facades of Richardson’s 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. “Usines de Dentelle”, photographs of lace factories in northern France followed “Railroad Photographs” and was exhibited at Le Channel, Calais, France, and at Jay Gorney Modern Art.

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. “Brown Polaroids” and “Degradés” were exhibited at Christine Burgin Gallery, New York and in the BiNational at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In October 1987 Welling had his first one-person show in Europe at Galerie Samia Saouma, Paris and 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 four book projects in the early 1990’s: “Les voies ferrees, St.-Etienne et la plaine du Forez” (1990), on the first French railroad line; “19 Photographs” (1990), aluminum foil photographs; “Usines de Dentelle” (1993), 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 both 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; in 1998 at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, Luzern, Switzerland and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and in 2000 at the Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. “Light Sources” was first published as a book in 1996 by Imschoot, Gent; the complete 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 tonally inverted 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 started “Connecticut Landscape” where he returned to places that were important to him in his adolescence. The majority of these pictures were made with an 8x10 inch view camera. 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 to fit the format of the magazine.

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,” “Flowers 2005-2008, 2014-16” “Screens 2005,” and “Torsos 2005/2008.” “Flowers” were exhibited widely and “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 1998 Welling bought a computer and a scanner and began to make color photographs (“Tricolor Photographs”) using red, green and blue color separation filters and Kodak Tri-X film. In 2005 Welling completed “Hexachromes,” made by sequentially exposing the same sheet of 4x5 color negative film through red, green, blue, cyan, yellow and magenta filters. Following “Hexachromes,” Welling photographed Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT, with various 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. For “Glass House” Welling began to use a Canon digital camera and an Epson 9800 printer. Also at the Glass House, Welling returned to video with three related 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 work in 2005, “War” and “Quadrilaterals,” using the program Autodesk Maya. In “War,” Welling created an imaginary landscape that he destroyed and then photographed in virtual space. “Quadrilaterals,” also made using Maya, were based on a series of 20x24in Polaroids of four-sided shapes that were recreated in Maya’s vector space. In 2009 Jacob Samuel published “Quadrilaterals” as a portfolio of 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” (12 x 15 in and 24 x 30 in chromogenic prints) 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 cliché-verre photographs that accompany Howe’s poem were created with acrylic paint and Mylar. The project was published in 2010 by The Grenfrell Press. An abbreviated "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 to make chemigrams on chromogenic paper; the resulting black and white images were morphologically related to “Frolic Architecture.” Some of these works, titled “Chemical,” were included in “Light, Paper, Process” at the Getty Museum in 2015 and in a special photography issue of the journal October in 2017. “Chemical” and a related project, “Meridian,” digital photographs made at Meridian Printing in 2014, reference the planographic origins of photography.

In September 2010 Welling began a project based on the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. In Cushing, Maine he photographed the Olson House and Broad Cove, where Wyeth painted for over 50 years. A few months later Welling began photographing in Chadds Ford, PA at the Kuerner Farm, another long-duration Wyeth subject, and in 2012, in Wyeth’s studio. In the “Wyeth” project Welling began to alter his digital camera files in radical ways: removing trees and buildings, changing and adding colors, collaging multiple images together. “Wyeth” was first exhibited at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in 2012; Welling continued working on the series until July 2015. In August 2015 an exhibition curated by Philipp Kaiser and designed by Johnston Marklee opened at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford. “Things Beyond Resemblance,” published in conjunction with the exhibition by Delmonico Prestel, was designed by Lorraine Wild/Green Dragon and included texts by Michael Fried, Suzanne Hudson and Sharon Lockhart.

In 2012 and 2013 Welling had two concurrent traveling survey exhibitions, “Monograph,” curated by James Crump, with an eponymous catalogue published by Aperture with an interview by Eva Respini, and “Mind on Fire,” curated by Anthony Spira, with an eponymous catalogue published by Delmonico Prestel with texts by Jan Tumlir and Jane McFadden. In these shows Welling exhibited early work for the first time: “Sculpture 1970, Film 1971” which documented his 1970 mobile sculpture and watercolors and drawings related to his early 1980’s photographs. In 2012 Welling returned to photographing in West Simsbury where he painted in the 1960’s. From 2012-2014 he photographed a 300 year old oak tree; he exhibited “Oak Tree” at the S. M. A. K. in Gent, Belgium in 2017.

In 2013 Welling was invited to participate in a book on the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For his part, Welling worked with archival images of events in the garden. He layered historic photographs with his own digital views of the same spaces into the red, green and blue color channels of Photoshop. The resulting photographs were adjusted in Photoshop and printed as large Epson 9900 prints. Concurrent with the MoMA Sculpture Garden project Welling created a suite of works for the Wadsworth Athenaeum using the same technique, merging historic and contemporary views to celebrate the reopening of museum in the fall of 2015.

As part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2017 Welling was invited to photograph Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus and the Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago. For this project, Welling used digital modeling of analogue equidensity photography to create areas of non natural color in an otherwise normative color photograph.

In 2014 Welling began “Choreograph,” his largest and most ambitious project to date. Researching his archives for “Mind on Fire,” Welling reconnected with his interest in modern dance. In July 2014 Welling began to photograph UCLA undergraduates posed according to images of 20th century dance, from Martha Graham to Tere O’Conner. In early 2015 Welling started to photograph the Los Angeles Dance Project as well as other touring dance companies in Los Angeles and in New York. As with the earlier projects using different images in each color channel, Welling added landscape and architectural photographs to the dance imagery. Many of the landscapes derived from West Simsbury, as well as other photographs made in Switzerland and Florida. “Choreograph” summarizes and extends Welling’s interest in trichromatic and other unconventional color processes.

In 2013 Welling began a “Seascape” a work that incorporates a short 16mm film his grandfather, William C. Welling made of the Atlantic Ocean in Ogunquit, Maine. W. C. Welling shot the film in order to paint a seascape from it. Eighty five years later Welling sampled the colors from his grandfather’s painting and colorized the original film footage using After Effects. To complete the film, Welling’s brother, Will Welling, composed a soundscape using three accordion tracks and beach pebbles on a large drum.

W. C. Welling studied painting at the Old Lyme Connecticut artist’s colony in the late 1920’s. The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme invited Welling to respond to the historic site for a group exhibition titled “In Place.” The museum and grounds had been photographed by Welling for “Diary/Landscape” in 1977 and also, beginning in 2006, as part of a yet-to-be-exhibited project, “Life Studies.”