Jack Welpott’s down home persona was as illusive as his poetic photographs. However, beneath this image there was an intelligent and articulate artist. He was a fine writer and an amateur jazz pianist. Welpott was also a gifted educator who instilled a passion for photography and loved to guide his students toward discovering their “game plan.” He mentored numerous photographers-Judy Dater, Leland Rice, Harvey Himmelfarb, John Spence Weir, Michael Bishop and numerous others.
In a time of specialization in photography, Welpott was a generalist and that is, perhaps, the reason that he was not as recognized as he should have been. He was also a bit of a rebel, but with a just cause, his art form, which was drawing with light. He had studied painting, drawing and photography.
Both portraits and nudes were Welpott’s tour de force. In Women and Other Visions he collaborated with Judy Dater to create a series of portraits about “womanness.” They found these strangers in cafes, shops and on the streets. As Jack said, “Portrait photography is an experience between two human beings, an experience shared with the viewer through the resulting photograph. If the moment is charged with feeling the image can be personal and revealing.” His intense portraits of Kathleen Kelly, Aaron Siskind and Trish are especially memorable.
To view his nudes as being concerned mainly with sex is an oversimplification. His approach to the nude parallels his approach to portraiture in that his concern for light, space and structure are equally important. Each image is unique and sometimes suggests, abstracts, eroticizes, but always elevates. Welpott was also a painter and student of art history and 19th century French painting admittedly influenced his nudes, especially Henri Matisse. Welpott often flattens and compresses the space as in Pamela and Sherry or abstracts as in Judy’s Elbow. Sabine, one of the models in Arles, France held a special fascination which puzzled him. On one occasion, while rummaging through old family photographs, he found a photograph of his mother and there was a striking similarity with Sabine. Welpott was steeped in the writings of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who influenced both his thinking and his photographs.
Anything was relevant for Welpott’s lens, so it is not surprising that he also photographed the landscape. One of his favorites was the untitled and uncanny photograph taken in the desert of the large format camera and a dog. He considered it one of his favorites. In Near Sacramento he pays homage to the fertile California earth. And after the death of his wife, Brooke, in 1998, he photographed the sand dunes near their home in Marin County, but eroticized the dunes which she loved, in her memory. His attitude towards the urban landscape was radically different, for example, Money Drop, where the trash of the day adds to the loneliness of the street. And in one of his enchantingly surrealistic photographs, a psychological landscape, Verrieres, questions are raised, but no answers provided.
Concerning the creation of a photograph, Welpott revealed a mystical side when he said, “There is the sensation of light penetrating everything. The world becomes luminous. Sometimes, one can see a wider, more brilliant, more significant, more detailed world than is apparent to others.” And with us, the viewers, he shares his incisive vision.
by Darwin Marable, Ph.D.
Darwin Marable is a photo historian, lecturer, critic and independent curator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.