Discussions of ABSTRACTION in photography may seem to be a paradox as one is accustomed to its function of mechanical reproduction and of its descriptive representation. Yet, the fact that a photograph is difficult to recognize or hardly legible is not incompatible with its technical definition—a luminous print on a photosensitive surface. Whatever its nature is, the photographic image always remains an image or representation of something, even if the photographer uses various processes to make the viewer forget what the image is a representation of. Since its discovery in 1839, photography has served many documentary uses, producing pictures based upon the representational codes of human vision (verism). Nevertheless, from the early twentieth century, many photographers have sought to transcend this use by experimenting and developing an abstract practice of photography.
Origins of ABSTRACTION
The history of photography often converges with that of Modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, chronologically as well as intellectually. The photograph’s history was marked in particular by the idea of the specificity and growing autonomy of the medium—the medium’s internal logic, principles, and evolution. The earliest abstract paintings emerged around 1910 by Vasily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich and others; historians observed almost at the same time the emergence of similar preoccupations among photographers. As early as the beginning of photography from the ‘‘photogenic drawings’’ of William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s to the studies of motion by Thomas Eakins and Etienne-Jules Marey (what he termed ‘‘chronophotography’’) in the 1880s, one finds images that could be described as abstract, although they serve scientific and technical purposes over aesthetic goals. It is only by 1908 that the germ of the formalist, stylized processes indicative of modernity emerged in Great Britain with Malcolm Arbuthnot’s The Doorstep or The Wheel; these works revealed his interest in Japanese art with emphases on composition, structure, asymmetry, line, distribution of light and shade. After Arbuthnot, the appearance of deliberately abstract photography occurs in the mid-1910s in America with Paul Stand’s Porch Shadows or The Bowls in 1915, pictures in which he played with forms and masses, composition and close frame. Already three years earlier, a similar work was realized by Alvin Langdon Coburn with his series New York From Its Pinnacles, and in particular, The Octopus, in which a bird’s eye view flattened perspective and generated twodimensional pattern. Strand would wait until his meeting with Ezra Pound and the Vorticism movement, inspired by the complexities of industrialization and urbanity, to realize between 1916 and 1917 his well-known series Vortographs. These works revealed his interest for cubist diffraction of space, and Italian futurism’s obsession with dynamism and movement.
The tendency towards ABSTRACTION in form of the aforementioned photographers illustrates what followed and lingered throughout the twentieth century, that is, the coexistence of two parallel views among American and European modernist photographers. These views included on the one hand, the inheritance of ‘‘pure’’ or ‘‘Straight’’ photographic aesthetic launched by American photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Aaron Siskind, and others; and on the other hand, an experimental aesthetic directly derived from the European avant-gardism of La´szlo´ Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Rodchenko, and others.
Straight Photography sought to seize an objective reality made of everyday objects that usually escape the human eye. Without any manipulation and by emphasizing purely photographic processes such as framing, lighting, focus, scale, or viewpoint, the resulting images exploited the pure formalism of flattened and two-dimensional patterns, geometry, and design. This trend was well illustrated in America with Bernard Shea Horne, Max Weber and their students of Clarence H. White School of Photography in the 1910s, in Charles Sheeler’s House Of Doylestown, Staircase (1917), in Stieglitz’s series Equivalents in 1923–1931, and in Siskind’s later work of the 1930s and 1940s. A related strain of the Americanists’ Straight Photography materialized with the New Vision (Neue Sehen) in Germany and Russia whose prominent representatives were Moholy-Nagy (From the Radio Tower Berlin, 1928) and Rodschenko (On The Pavement, 1928).
Even more experimental or aesthetically radical than the work of the aforementioned Straight photographers was another strain of ABSTRACTION that considered photography as an ideal means of plastic expression to build and create new visual codes. Using a diversity of practices such as the photogram, manipulation of light, movement and chemistry, European photographers realized a range of recurrent features that became associated with modernist ABSTRACTION. Because the photogram was produced without a camera, the artist could create images from shadows and silhouettes of objects that were placed between the light source and light-sensitive paper or film, thus bypassing the mechanical or technical apparatus in favor of imagination and even surrealism.
At the origins of numerous abstract manipulations, the photogram became one of the most enduring techniques of the century, finding practitioners in Christian Schad as early as 1918, Man Ray in 1921, and Moholy-Nagy in 1922. Exemplifying Dadaist and Constructivist preoccupations, photogram processes allowed the exploration of photography’s profound nature by exploiting the play of texture, pattern, transparency, and the duality of positive-negative relationships. The process permitted many possibilities such as experimentation with dematerialization, the interpenetration of forms, distortion and lack of perspective. Various artists such as Theodore Roszak, Georg Zimin, Piet Zwart, and Willy Zielke made photograms in the 1930s; Bronislaw Schlabs, Julien Coulommier, Andrzej Pawlowski, Beksinki and Kurt Wendlandt in the 1940s and 1950s; Lina Kolarova, Rene´ Ma¨chler, and Andreas Mulas in the 1970s; Tomy Ceballos, Kare Magnole, Andreas Mu¨ ller-Pohle, and Floris M. Neusu¨ ss have utilized the process in the 1980s.
Equally important among abstract practices, the use of light remains a fundamental principle with the function not only to reveal and make visible, but also to be exploited as a real material. In this respect, several trajectories can be traced, including the pictures of lighted surfaces or volumes in Francis Bruguie`re’s Light ABSTRACTIONs (1919) and Jaromir Funke’s Light ABSTRACTION, Rectangles in the 1920s. Between the 1930s and the 1950s photographers such as Moholy-Nagy with his Light Modulator ‘‘machines,’’ Barbara Morgan seized upon luminous flow, whether fixed or in motion, to produce calligraphic expression. More recently in France, Thomas Reaume in the 1980s and Bernard Lanteri in the 1990s have realized luminous and fluid forms that defy the fixed nature of the photographic image.
Movement and blurredness represent another aspect of ABSTRACTION in photography. This tendency is illustrated by the works of Italian futurists such as the brothers Arturo and Antonin Bragaglia’s photodynamism and aerial photography by Fedele Azari and Filippo Masoero, in addition to the kineticism of German photographers Oskar Schlemmer, Peter Keetman and Otto Steinert in the 1940s–1950s. Generally, these works fit an aesthetic of speed and movement linked to the expressions of the artistic avant-garde of the time. But it is only by the 1950s that an aesthetic of blurredness, movement, and random quality peculiar to photography found expression. As such, it seemed that American William Klein’s work was as much a beginning and a major reference for contemporary photographers such as Gerard Dalla-Santa, Frederic Gallier, Herve´ Rabot, Patrick Toth, and Mu¨ ller-Pohle who during the 1980s viewed movement not only as a transcription of the urban world’s brutal dynamism but also as a mine of pure form, revealing the visual and tactile qualities of photography (for example, grain).
Finally, choosing to relinquish the optical aspect of the medium, another group of photographers preferred to explore the medium’s physical chemistry. Relying on darkroom experimentation and camera-less imagery, photographers explored the abstract qualities possible in chemical experimentation, leading to the specific forms of Edmund Kesting and Chargesheimer in the 1940s, and Stryj Piasecki or Pierre Cordier in the 1950s. Sigmar Polke during the 1970s and Riwan Tromeur during the 1980s have produced a peculiar formal vocabulary by altering the very photographic chemical process.
See also: Bragaglia, Antonin; Bruguie`re, Francis; Chargesheimer; Dada; Funke, Jaromir; Modernism; Moholy-Nagy, La´szlo´ ; Photogram; Siskind, Aaron; Stieglitz, Alfred; Strand, Paul; Zwart, Piet