With so much happening in our daily lives, it’s easy to overlook what’s right in front of us—a tree losing its leaves or a glass on the table—in favor of more stimulating images and encounters. In her new show at the Art Institute of Chicago, photographer Uta Barth takes those distractions out. What’s left is the background noise-and it turns out the background noise can tell a story too.

Barth, a German-born photographer who lives in Los Angeles, often shoots the spaces in and around her house. The subjects are familiar but Barth strips them of personality, disorienting the viewer by making them simultaneously accessible and not. Her work has a strong technical aspect, and she uses the camera to explore how people and lenses see a space differently.

“white blind (bright red)”


The eponymous show begins outside Galleries 188-189 with Barth’s 2002 series, white blind (bright red). Taken out Barth’s window, the images appear as a sequence of panels depicting a bare tree and power lines. Beginning in black and white, Barth progressively fades out the branches to outlines, ending the sequence with a brick red panel and deep tangerine panel. Each of the colored panels has a ghostly hint of the trees and power lines. Look at each picture for a while before moving to the next to see how time—and Barth’s editing process—manipulates the scene.


credit: Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and 1301PE, Los Angeles

Barth’s 2007 series Sundial was taken indoors at the moment when day begins to transition to dusk. She shoots turned-off light fixtures, bare white walls, a sliver of mustard-colored sofa, the corner of a table, the shadow of a glass. The room seems empty and impersonal, until you notice the last frame – along with the shadow of a glass, there’s also the shadow of Barth’s body. By playing with color, light and shadow, the series explores the visible versus the invisible, and how those elements are present in everyday spaces. Sundial is the most visually complex of the works on display and invites the most contemplation, partly due to the arrangement of photographs in the gallery itself. There are three walls of photographs, and a long bench creates a fourth “wall.” Viewers are forced to walk clockwise around the space, in imitation of a sundial, and the effect is striking.

“and to draw a bright white line with light”

credit: Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and 1301PE, Los Angeles

and to draw a bright white line with light is Barth’s latest series, featuring a ribbon of light jumping across a set of curtains. The 15 photographs, which were created for this show, are inkjet prints that examine the passing of time on an August day. As you look at the works from left to right, the band of light grows in size. As in Barth’s other works in this show, energy arises out of the stillness of the atmosphere. But what sets this series apart is the intrusion of Barth’s hand in two of the frames – she literally draws a bright white line by manipulating the light coming through the window. It’s a playful moment, and one that provides a guide for looking at Barth’s work: at first glance her world may seem nearly empty, but when you move beyond simple observation, you’ll find a world of rich images and shifting perceptions.

Uta Barth is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue) through August 14, 2011.

by Amy Cavanaugh