I came across some interesting remarks made by Patrick McCaughey in the 1970s about the relationship between photography and abstraction in Mellissa Miles’ text The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography. This was in an introduction to Aspects of Australian Photography (ed. Graham Howe, 1974) that McCaughey, a formalist art critic and art historian, wrote. His concern as a formal modernist was that photography, of it wanted to be a serious art, should work with the essential properties of photography as a medium rather than aspire to produce abstractions like painting.
McCaughey said that photographers should stop aspiring to be artists and instead embrace the essential properties of their medium: its ubiquity, accessibility and reproducibility. The more the photographer accepts his (sic) role as a photographer and the less concerned he (sic) is to prove himself as an artist, accepting the habits of artist, exhibiting as an artist and seeking a role and status akin painters sculptors, the better off photography is. Photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium. Photography is always photography of something.
This was Greenberg’s position: photography’s essential properties were delimited according to the medium’s supposedly direct relationship to the external visual world and that what the medium is becomes deﬁned via what it is not. The determination of any given medium is partly through negation.
However McCaughey’s modernist purity position is one that says what counts as a medium is a given with determinable criteria thereby allowing him to identify a medium or judge its value in advance. Consequently, it dismisses abstraction in photography by definition, in spite of there being a tradition of abstract photography and that there is an expanding field in any medium.
An expanding ﬁeld in photography in the 1970s opens up the possibility of a whole range of new practices can each count as a photographic medium. It would also highlight different photographic practices moving away from traditional documentary and formalist modernism with the paradigm shift in the art world away from modernism.