Abstract Photography - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Abstract Photography
Definition and Topic Overview
"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.
The evolution of abstract photography has primarily been driven by the pioneering explorations of individual artists. Some, such as Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, used traditional methods to photograph real-life scenes and objects in ways which emphasized their abstract qualities, while others, such as Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, made abstract "photograms", contact-prints created without a camera. The rise of abstract art from the early twentieth century onwards, and of its various associated genres - including Cubism, Vorticism, Dada, and, later in the century, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptualism - has had a notable influence on the development of abstract photography, much of which was produced in association with one or other of these movements.
The first photographs now seen to have abstract qualities were taken for scientific purposes, and were only later viewed for their artistic merit. In 1842, the American-British scientist John William Draper, who was active across a number of fields including photochemistry, made a series of photographs of the light-rays dispersed by a spectroscope. The resulting images were fascinating (if inadvertent) works of abstract art, making invisible scientific forces perceptible to the naked eye. In 1843, the English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins started working with a new cyanotype process now more commonly known as "blueprints", which had been developed by the British scientist John Herschel the previous year. Atkins produced various cyanotype photograms of algae specimens, contact-printing them by placing them on the cyanotype paper and exposing them to light. The resulting images were published in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), the first botanical book to use photographic illustrations. The beautiful patterns created by early scientific photographers were later viewed with wonder by avant-garde artists, who saw them as presaging their own experiments in abstract photography. The idea of the cameraless image, in particular, would have a profound effect on the development of the genre across the twentieth century.
Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortographs (1916)
The first artist to make intentionally abstract photographs was Alvin Langdon Coburn. At the beginning of his career Coburn was associated the Photo-Secession movement - which sought to present photography as a legitimate medium for fine art - and with Pictorialism, which brought to photography the impressionistic, mannered qualities of some late-nineteenth-century painting. Heralded by the influential gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz as the Photo-Secession's "youngest star", Coburn's early works, such as Station Roofs, Pittsburgh (1910) and The Octopus (1912), already indicate a movement towards abstraction in their emphasis of abstract pattern through novel aerial views. Other photographers, including Paul Strand and Stieglitz himself, as well as various figures connected to the so-called Straight Photography movement, were inspired by Coburn to focus on abstract forms and utilize idiosyncratic vantage-points.
In 1916 Coburn published an influential essay, "The Future of Pictorial Photography," in which he asked "why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?" He proposed staging an exhibition entitled "Abstract Photography", where "no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary."
Coburn's interest in abstraction led him towards Vorticism. In 1913, while taking photographs for his portrait book More Men of Mark (1913), he met the avant-garde poet Ezra Pound, one of the founding figures of that movement, and the two developed a close working relationship. Coburn produced several portraits of Pound, supposedly made using broken pieces of the poet's shaving mirror. The artist initially referred to these images as "Cubist," acknowledging the influence of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. He subsequently made an attachment for his camera lens by clamping three mirrors together in a triangular shape, using the adapted machine to photograph prismatic crystals, or pieces of wood arranged on a glass table. Pound dubbed these images "Vortographs", acquisitively associating them with the movement he was then spearheading.
The movement of Vorticism had been launched in 1914, by Pound's friend, the artist Wyndham Lewis, and the pair were primarily responsible for its conception and development. Though it purportedly spanned over a range of media, as a visual-art movement Vorticism favored a combination of Cubist fragmentation of the picture plane with a depiction of motion seen to be more sophisticated than that propagated by the Italian Futurists. Coburn shared the movement's belief in producing "a New Living Abstraction", as Lewis put it in the movement's flagship journal Blast, and the young photographer fell under the influence of the Vorticist aesthetic.
Pound was an early advocate of Coburn's abstract photography, promoting the first exhibition of Vortographs at the London Camera Club in 1917. The show was met with critical controversy, however, and as a result, a plan for the exhibition to travel to New York and Boston was abandoned. However, Coburn's work would have a profound effect on a range of modern artists: for the first time, as critics Mark Antliff and Vivian Greene note, he had brought photography up to speed with the advances of modern painting.
Straight Photography and Paul Strand
Straight Photography was a movement that developed in the early 1900s, marking a movement away from the Pictorialist emphasis on painterly composition. The Straight Photographers sought to capture their subject-matter with a clarity that only the camera could achieve, utilizing the unique merits of their medium - sharp focus and close cropping - rather than attempting to define photographic style by referencing painting. At the same time, their striking use of shadow, and of clear lines and shapes, facilitated a move towards abstraction.
The work of the American photographer Paul Strand, who had previously been a Pictorialist and member of the Photo-Secession group, perhaps best exemplifies the ethos of Straight Photography. With pieces like Wall Street (1915), he offered both a crisp and direct treatment of recognizable subject-matter, and a formally striking emphasis on interlocking shapes and lines. Strand's work, like Coburn's, was championed by Albert Stieglitz, featuring in the final two issues of his journal Camera Work. Strand's photographs often emphasize the abstract designs or patterning of ordinary things: fences, furniture, or stacks of bowls.
Strand titled many of his pictures from 1915-16 "Abstractions," stating that his exposure to the work of Picasso, Braque, and Constantin Brancusi at Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in New York had inspired him to "apply their then strange abstract principles to photography." His approach to the Straight image influenced not only contemporaries, but also a younger generation of photographers such as Edward Weston, who emphasized abstract form and pattern in works such as Cabbage Leaf (1931).
Abstract Photography: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The Sky and Worker's Tools: Photographs of the Everyday Objects
In 1922, Alfred Stieglitz decided to create a series of photographs of clouds, "to show that [the success of] my photographs [was] not due to subject matter - not to special trees or faces, or interiors, to special privileges - clouds were there for everyone." He was partly responding to the critic Waldo Frank, who had suggested that the interest of his images simply reflected his striking choices of subject-matter. Stieglitz had been interested in photographing the effects of clouds as early as 1887. Returning to the subject in later decades, he recalled that "[e]very time I developed [a cloud negative] I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after - but had failed." Part of the difficulty was that the orthochromatic nature of most emulsions made them very sensitive to blues, and tended to lighten the sky and blend the clouds into it, creating a washed-out look.
With renewed vigor, and using a new panchromatic emulsion, Stieglitz produced a more successful series of cloud photographs between 1922 and 1923, published as Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs (also known as Clouds in Ten Movements). A further series, Songs of the Sky, appeared in 1924. By describing his images as "songs" and "movements", he was consciously alluding to the synesthetic credo of the Expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky, whose abstract works, such as Composition VII (1913), were intended to express musical concepts. In 1925, Stieglitz began referring to his cloud images as Equivalents - work under this title was produced between 1922 and 1934 - and to produce images of almost totally abstract effect. Art historian Sarah Greenough and artist Juan Hamilton have described the Equivalents as "photographs of shapes that have ceded their identity, in which Stieglitz obliterated all references to reality normally found in a photograph."
Other artists previously connected to the Pictorialist Movement, such as Pierre Dubreuil, developed similarly unique photographic idioms in the 1920s. The art critic Andy Grunberg has described how Dubreuil "managed to absorb the compositional tropes of the modern style without abandoning his reliance on atmosphere."
Steiglitz's work would influence a younger generation of Straight Photographers, including Lotte Jacobi, Henry Holmes Smith, Minor White, and Aaron Siskind. All of these artists began during the 1940s to create abstract work using landscapes and found objects: a metal hook and eye; rock formations; peeling paint on a wall. Minor White was particularly influenced by Stieglitz's Equivalents series, while Smith pioneered the use of high-speed flash photography, drawing on the experiments of László Moholy-Nagy. Siskind's work was uniquely informed by his close association with the Abstract Expressionist painters, including Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb.
A number of these artists felt that the image had a correspondence or equivalence to inner states or elemental realities. Frederick Sommer referred to his near-abstract photographs of desert landscapes, in which the dense, all-over detail of vegetation and rock tends to flatten out any implied perspective, as "constellations". While containing representational imagery, these landscapes and found-object photographs have a formal effect largely disconnected from representational source.
In the heyday of the European avant-garde, various artists, including Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, explored the idea of cameraless photography, placing objects directly onto photo-sensitive papers to create what were known as "photograms" (a term actually coined in 1858). This would have a profound impact on the development of abstract photography later in the century.
The German printmaker and painter Christian Schad joined the Zurich Dada group after moving to Switzerland during World War I. The Dada movement, with its "anti-art" aesthetic, was a nurturing environment for mixed-media experiments of all kinds, including experimental photography. In 1918, Schad began creating what the Dadaist Tristan Tzara referred to as "Schadographs", a pun on the artist's name and the German word for shadow, "Schad." Schad was the first artist to use contact-printing for artistic effect, placing objects such as string, newspaper, fabric, and torn paper - often rummaged from trash bins - on sheets of photographic paper, and exposing them to light by leaving them in his window.
A few years later, in 1921, the American photographer and artist Man Ray moved to Paris and became close friends with two figureheads of the Dada movement, Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara. Tzara introduced Man Ray to Schad's work, and, though Man Ray never acknowledged the influence, he began making his own contact prints with found objects. He called the resulting images "Rayograms" or "Rayographs", publishing a volume of them, Les Champs Délicieux ("The Delightful Fields"), in 1922, with an introduction by Tzara. The Rayographs were largely abstract in effect, and their rendering of everyday objects as enigmatic oddities resonated with the aims of the Dada movement. Their striking graphic qualities also led to their being used in advertising.
In 1922, the Hungarian Constructivist artist László Moholy-Nagy also began creating cameraless photographic works, referring to them simply as "photograms". Moholy-Nagy was associated with the Bauhaus and with the New Vision movement in film and photography. Like other figures associated with New Vision, Moholy-Nagy saw the camera as capable of generating a new, objective, and impersonal visual language for art. By allowing for the perception of light itself, and through its capacity for extreme close-up, the camera undid traditional ways of seeing. The photogram, meanwhile, by removing the camera from the creation process, made the photographic image and the subject-matter it depicted one and the same.
Moholy-Nagy continued experimenting with the photogram throughout his career, and his work would have a major influence on later photographers such as Henry Holmes Smith, Arthur Siegel, Lois Field, and Nathan Lerner, all of whom created photogram-based work. These artists in turn influenced a further generation of abstract photographs, as seen in the impact of Siegel's work upon the contemporary photographer Thomas Ruff's monumental digital photograms. Other artists, such as the contemporary Swiss photographer Raphael Hefti and the German Floris Neusüss, are known for producing photograms in which organic lifeforms are placed in contact with the photosensitive sheet. Light exposure techniques can be similarly inventive, Neusüss sometimes relying on lightning for his exposure processes.
Contemporary artists such as Sam Falls, Marco Breuer, Len Lye, Jason Lazarus, Liz Deschenes, Wolfgang Tillmans, Christian Marclay, and Walead Beshty have also created innovative variations on the photogram. Falls is known for his work with photosensitive fabric, while the German Breuer scratches and abrades the surface of his photograms, often using power tools.
Aerial photography was first practiced by the French caricaturist and portraitist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, who took pictures from a hot air balloon in 1858. Across the following century, the kinds of images which he produced - and those created in the early twentieth century from dirigibles and light aircraft - were primarily used for scientific and military purposes. But in the late 1940s, the American artist William A. Garnett began to focus on the artistic possibilities of aerial photography. Garnett had served in World War II as an army cameraman, and on his release from military duty trained as a pilot, creating long-range images of the American landscape from above. Works such as Strip Farm, East Slope of the Tehachapi Mountains (1951), and photographs of tract housing such as Furnished Housing, Lakewood, California (1950), emphasize dramatic abstract patterning, in the style of Stieglitz's work. The Getty Museum's entry on Garnett remarks that "his photographs resemble abstract expressionist paintings [...] As landscapes, they do not have the conventional grounding of a horizon line. All reveal astonishing patterns that are not seen from the ground." A number of contemporary artists continue to explore the possibilities of aerial photography, though most use different methods of flight, such as Kacper Kowalski, who creates his images while paragliding, and Zack Zeckler, who photographs from a helicopter.
Explorations of the formal boundaries of photography have led other contemporary artists to create works with three-dimensional and architectonic effects. Wolfgang Tillmans began making his Paper Drop series (2001-08) by crafting simple sculptural forms in photographic paper, exposing them to colored light and then photographing them. For his Lighter series (2005-08), he displayed the sculpted photograms themselves. Barbara Kasten, in her Constructs series (1979-86), has created entire installations in which the perceptual boundary between material object and photogram vanishes.
Liz Deschenes has created photogram-based installations such as Stereographs #1-4 (Rise/Fall) (2012), in which photographic paper exposed to moonlight is mounted on thin rectangles to create minimalist sculptural works. These are hung symmetrically to mimic the effects of nineteenth-century stereoscopy and linear perspective.
Later Developments - After Abstract Photography
Abstraction is an important trend in contemporary photography, as artists continue to push at the boundaries of the medium. The photogram remains a vital aspect of this exploratory work, as is clear from the recent output of Wolfgang Tillmans, Walead Beshty, Penelope Umbrico, Gaston Bertin, Ellen Carey, Nicki Stager, Harvey Lloyd, Adam Broomberg, and Oliver Chanarin.
Photographers have also turned to digital technology, creating abstract artworks which build on the earlier advances of abstract photography. The Dutch artist Carel Balth sandwiches images created from video stills between aluminum plates and layers of epoxy resin, while the American Tom Friedman has pioneered the genre of Photoshop abstraction.
Abstract photography's vital presence in contemporary art is shown by the number of artists included in the exhibition Light Play: Experiments in Photography, 1970 to the Present, held at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art in 2017. Including work sourced from the museum's permanent collection, this was a complementary exhibition to Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, and was intended to feature the work of artists who "extended, as did Moholy, the parameters of photography."