Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art
The title of the exhibition Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art at the Tate Modern, London, alludes to an ontological approach to the definition of photography: in this case, its physical connection to light. While photography necessarily troubles a single, medium-specific approach to definition – the camera, the negative, or the print – this chronological exhibition deliberately identifies rays of light as the material content of photography, made explicit by an opening quote by Pierre Dubreil.
In the first few rooms in particular, the exhibition is organised so that photographs are compared to counterparts in other media, including painting, sculpture and later on installation. In some instances, this comparative approach is manifested through the graphic likening of, for example, a painting and a photograph, some of which are indeed homages to earlier abstract paintings. This is particularly apparent in Marta Hoepffner’s photographs from 1937 that directly quote Kandinsky’s oil compositions, and are hung adjacent to the painter’s Swinging (1925). Similarly German Lorca’s 1960 photograph entitled Mondrian Window is placed beside a painting by the painter. Also paired together are a painting by Georges Braque and Pierre Dubreil’s photograph Interpretation Picasso: The Railway, which directly refers, as does Lorca’s photograph, not only to a painter, but also to a distinct object. Through such instances of homage and explicit reference, it might be argued that the subsequent photographs must necessarily be viewed as figurative representations, albeit of abstract subject matter, thus forgoing the claim to their own status as abstract works. As a result of these formal quotations, the level of abstraction in these photographs is potentially undermined: despite communicating an abstract aesthetic, they behave as visually-likened renderings of the abstractions they seek to reflect.
Indeed the entire exhibition evokes the recurring question: how abstract is this photograph? The proposed marriage of photography and abstraction raises queries regarding the extent to which a photograph can be abstract at all. As a medium related to documentary, and as a technology that imprints light on photosensitive paper such that an object is indexically related to its image, how is photographic abstraction really abstract?The exhibition’s answer to the problem is not to try to measure, by any scale, how abstract a photograph is, but rather to investigate its interaction with abstract methods, compositions, and to view the objects and environments of everyday life in abstract terms.
The second room is dedicated to a key figure in promoting such interactions, Alfred Stieglitz, whose journal Camera Work ran from 1903 to 1917, and consistently interrogated the medium by way of critical essays but also in the presentation of new photographic works. Stieglitz is credited as having facilitated European and American interaction, proposing that modernism, and particularly modernist photography, actively engage in transatlantic dialogue. Included in this room are a selection of Stieglitz’s Equivalent series, comprising photographs of cloud formations, as well as two photographs by Paul Strand taken in Connecticut in 1916, one of porch shadows and the other of crockery. A sculpture by Constantin Brancusi occupies a prime position in the room. This bronze and limestone sculpture of a bird, Maiastra(1911), not only calls forth Brancusi’s modernist and abstract oeuvre, but is also in conversation with Edward Steichen’s photograph, entitled Bird in Space(1926), displayed on the wall to its side, which documents another Brancusi sculpture of a bird, dramatically lit. While the wall text narrates that Brancusi, encouraged by Man Ray, took photographs of his own sculptures in his studio, these photographs are not present in the exhibition. The exclusion of Brancusi’s photographs thus bears the question: who counts as photographer? While Steichen’s photograph of Brancusi’s sculptural bird is, without too much probing, considered art photography, does the absence of Brancusi’s photography suggest that these images ought to be considered documents rather than art?This debate surrounding the distinction of art vs. document is palpable throughout the exhibition, despite its hesitation to put forward an answer.
The exhibition then moves on to explore Moholy-Nagy’s ‘New Vision’ through the photographs he took from a worm or bird’s eye view that he described himself as ‘faulty’. These new perspectives, including aerial views, are something that the technology of photography enabled, and as such, visually signify as ‘modern,’ and are repeated in photographs by Aleksandr Rodchenko, Germaine Krull, Margaret Bourke-White and others by Moholy-Nagy himself. Accompanying this suggestion of a ‘new vision’ is also a selection of camera-less photography, such as photograms and rayograms (named by Man Ray after himself), which emphasize the initial curatorial argument of photography as light. The dematerialized aspect of photography is then re-engaged with the material via a section of the exhibition devoted to he human body as abstracted in photography, as manifested in works such as Bill Brandt’s East Sussex Coast(1960), Imogen Cunningham’s Triangles (1928), a selection of nudes by Brassaï (c.1933), André Kertész’s Distortion photographs (1933) and a photograph of a neck, wherein a head is tilted back, entitled Anatomies(1930) by Man Ray. In these cases, the frame is of utmost importance, fragmenting the body so that it is formally rendered as connected or touching shapes.
In a room titled, “Drawing with Light”, Nathan Lerner’s Light Tapestry (1939), Arthur Siegel’s Untitled (Motion-Light Study)(c. 1940), Sameer Makarius’s Luminogram (c.1950), and Harry Callahan’s Chicago (c. 1946, printed 1979-89 with a dye transfer) are seen in tandem with Jackson Pollock’s Number 23(1948, made with enamel on gesso on paper), returning us to the deliberate interplay of media, whereby exposure time dictates the visual markings of motion, suggesting that photography is both time-sensitive and kinetic, in a manner not dissimilar to action-painting. Furthermore, the advancement of photography’s potential gesture lends itself to older privileged conceptions of the artist’s hand as the source of artistic genius, a conception that is potentially antagonistic, and acting as a challenge to the perception of photography as a purely mechanical or objective medium.
Surface and texture are subsequently examined through Aaron Siskind’s nature and urban environmental studies, where found objects are rendered ready-made abstractions. Additionally, optical effects continue to serve an important role in a display of Op Art experiments from the 1960s (Bridget Riley and Gottfried Jäger), whereby the myth of photography as a truth-telling device is again violated, and new advances in technology allow for new terms of abstraction. As the exhibition comes to a close, colour adopts an increasing presence with the inclusion of cyanotypes (albeit a 19thcentury technology), and large scale prints, such as Stan Douglas’s digitally reengineered photographs. It is with this culmination, comprised of the large multi-media installation by Maya Rochat, that photography is strongly argued to be a medium that continues to push the boundaries of new technologies in a constant effort to alter and expand its own definition, to include, but extend beyond ‘light’.
Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America”, October,Vol. 3 Spring 1977, pp. 68–81.
See Walter Benjamin on art-as-photography and photography-as-art in“A Little History of Photography”, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, 1927–1934. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 520.