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.
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.
In this post on the Mallee Routes blog I mentioned the lack of critical writing about local exhibitions in Adelaide and the crisis of independent writing about art in general. An associated problem emerges from the art gallery existing in a digital economy due to the gallery usually having a minimal online presence; a minimal presence that is especially noticeable with respect to their exhibitions. The current Mallee Routes exhibition at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery is a case in point.
The standard convention is that there is just the odd image from an exhibition online which is primarily used to market the exhibition to the public. This means that an online viewer, in say another state, is unable to gain a sense of, or assess, the exhibition. Secondly, there is little to no engagement, dialogue or conversation with the gallery’s online audience about their exhibitions. This, in turn, means that an exhibition has a limited reach and presence. It’s here today, seen by few, and forgotten tomorrow, unless it is reviewed or there is an exhibition catalogue. The latter only happens to the mega exhibitions of superstars or global artists working in the biennial culture.
The art gallery’s low digital presence provides an entry point into a problematic about how the nature of photography is changing and the significance of these changes. We can begin to explore this through looking at the functioning of the art gallery in a digital economy. Firstly, the gallery continues its role of curating and collecting photography; a role that is designed to sort the image s to incorporate into the canon through the separation of photography as art and not-art. However, in continuing to champion photography as an art form, the curators downplay photography’s role as a reproductive technology in order to emphasise the creative legitimacy of the photographer who pressed the shutter.
Secondly, art galleries continue to rely on foot traffic to view the staging of a contemporary photograph exhibition in the white cube, grounded in aesthetic modernism. It does appear that the curators in the art galleries currently see digital technologies as either a new tool for artists to express themselves, or as a channel for communications and marketing through which new audiences can be targeted and captured. This approach to digital technology excludes is photography’s diffusion into general computing in a digital economy.
The Tate exhibition basically re-inserts the history of photography into the well-writ narrative of art history to make a necessary point: – that photography merits serious consideration within the category of abstract art, and that the camera’s attraction to the shape of light rather than the shape of solid form as we perceive it, changed the way images of all kinds were composed. It also suggests that there has been a fruitful dialogue between abstract painting (Miro, Riley, Braque, Mondrian, Pollock, Kandinsky) and photography over the last hundred years.
This raises a question: has this kind of dialogue around abstraction come to an end in the 21st century rather than being continued?
King’s Head abstraction
The curators place the 20th century’s avant-garde’s photographic experimentations (ie., abstraction) in the context of wider developments in art, with examples of cubism, abstract expressionism, Bauhaus and op art providing benchmarks. The curatorial argument is that abstract photography has evolved in step with painting and that there is a shared history. The relationship between painting and photography has been a symbiotic one, a close mutualist relationship that has benefited both art forms.
An alternative interpretation is that abstract photography followed behind abstract painting, in that abstract painters influenced the way photographic artists understood image and that the photos are the monochrome equivalents of paintings. This interpretation reinforces the culturally conservative position of the supremacy of painting. This conservative interpretation overlooks the way that both Rodchenko and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy challenged the supremacy of painting by refusing to see any medium as more important than another, and by working in fields as diverse as film, graphic and theatre design, sculpture, painting and light shows. The common tendency in the Australian art institution is to adopt the conservative interpretation. Continue Reading…
I have taken the plunge and started selecting the images I have made whilst on my coastal poodlewalks and putting them into a Lightroom folder as the next step towards constructing a photobook. I have been publishing some of these images on my Littoral Zone weblog, which I had set up in order to help me figure out what I am doing with the photographs that have been made almost on a daily basis. These are simple, low key photographs of humble things and fleeting moments encountered on my various poodle walks.
Venus Bay, Eyre Peninsula, SA, 2013
Since the photos in the poodlewalks blog were images-in-text, the concept behind the photobook is a visual poetics, or more accurately a photo-poetics; one that explores word image (textual-pictorial) relations. The book as a photo-text breaks with both the idea of the photographic image as a record of objects or events in the real world as in photojournalism’s narratives, and the standard conception of the photobook being images with minimal or no text. It is part of what Liliane Louvel, the French theoriest, calls an iconotext in which text and image merge in a pluriform fusion.
Such an approach breaks with a formalist modernism, as that held held that the literary and visual arts are substantially different and mutually exclusive; a view that reaches back to Lessing’s Laocoon with its distinction between the literature as a temporal art and the visual as a spatial art. With the decay of formalist modernism these rigid boundaries were breached with many theorists and artists positioning themselves against Lessing’s rigid borders. The mutual interdependence of images and words and the impure and mixed mediality of visual as well as verbal artifacts are now widely accepted in our visual culture. Photography-in-text is a hybrid product that gives rise to a hybrid textual genre–an intermedial photo-text. Continue Reading…