I want to pick up on an earlier post on photography and abstraction in relation to the practice of large format photography in order to begin to dig into what we mean by abstraction. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the word abstract is vague, imprecise, and ambiguous, and secondly there has been little written about abstraction despite its centrality to the visual arts in the 20th century. Thirdly, there is even less written on abstraction in photography.
These reasons are underpinned by the habitual disdain for theoretical abstractions, which once informed empiricism, the philosophy with which the English-speaking world is most associated. This restricts abstraction to the mind wherein is identified as an abstract or general idea formed from sense data or sensory impressions of classes of objects or patterns in nature–ie, the general idea of rocks as opposed to these particular rocks. This post, then begins to explore what is conceptually meant by abstraction.
Abstraction in the visual arts in Australia is traditionally tied to both the modernist paintings in The Field Exhibition in the late 1960s, and to the modernist understanding of abstraction of Clement Greenberg’s conception of abstract visual art as the pinnacle of the medium of painting, due to it having succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media. The art historical conception that is found in exhibition catalogues and art history books interprets abstraction as the absence of figuration or depiction of everyday objects. The consequence is that Patrick McCaughey, an Australian modernist follower of Greenberg, held that photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium of photography. That was Greenberg’s position as well: the medium of photography in its essence was an art of documenting the world as opposed to documentary being a subdivision of photography.
If we are to explore abstraction in photography we need to step away from the habits and conventions of this modernist cultural frame in the sense of shifting our patterns of thought beyond familiar aesthetic norms so we can open up abstraction more broadly to new tendencies to stasis or change, eruptions and becomings. We need to look at abstraction conceptually, and not just in terms of what it has been as outlined in Lyle Rexer’s The Edge of Vision.