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Movements, Styles, and Tendencies Abstract Photography

Abstract Photography

Abstract Photography Collage

Started: 1916

"The most astonishing possibilities remain to be discovered in the raw material of the photograph"

László Moholy-Nagy Signature


Abstract photography is a term with ambiguous connotations, associated but not limited to the achievements of groups such as the Photo-Secession, Straight Photography, and New Vision movements. Since the late nineteenth century, photographers have been determined to match the formal and conceptual advances of other genres within Modern Art. The result is an extraordinary and varied body of work in which the compositional traits and subject-matter of traditional photography recede from view. Here are abstract photograms made without cameras by exposing found objects and treated photosensitive paper to natural light; surreal close-up and long-distance images, in which the details of natural or architectural patterning become abstract compositional motifs; and conceptual and installation-based works in which photography is incorporated into sophisticated mixed-media practices.

Key Ideas

One of the key advances of abstract photography has been the realization that cameras are not required to make photographs. In the early twentieth century, artists such as Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy began to create bricolage-style works by placing found objects directly onto photosensitive paper, generating graphically-arresting images in which the everyday detritus of modern life is rendered luminous and strange.
Since the early advances of Schad, Man Ray et al, abstract artists have continually returned to the "photogram" - the cameraless photograph - as a medium allowing for uniquely self-reflexive and creative interventions into the photographic form. Rather than capturing an image by the passage of light through shutters onto photosensitive paper, the paper itself is directly manipulated and treated - often brought into contact with other objects - allowing for a potentially endless array of effects.
As a general rule, abstract photography has tended to avert its gaze from extraordinary and arresting subject-matter. Instead, it focuses on the irregular forms and impressions which can be generated by representing familiar objects in new ways: from Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortographs, made using a camera lens adapted with fragments of broken mirror, to contemporary works by Walead Beshty, Liz Deschenes and others.
It is impossible to evoke the spirit of abstract photography without mentioning the specific development of aerial photography, a method which now has a much wider currency across commercial and popular art. In the 1940s, however, when William A. Garnett began to photograph tract housing and machine-harvested fields from the wing of his domestic aircraft, the idea of photographing the earth from above was new and strange, in many cases producing surreal images which seemed totally disconnected from the subject-matter they represented.
Abstract Photography Image


"Abstract Photography" is an ambiguous term, without a commonly accepted definition. Like abstract art, it has also been called non-objective or concrete, and like abstract art it occupies a sliding scale from broadly representational work with abstract elements to wholly non-representational images. It can also involve a wide variety of photographic materials, processes and equipment, and is not always created with the use of a camera. In many cases, it may instead involve the manipulation of photosensitive materials such as paper and cloth.

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