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Saturday, 21 December 2019

‘SHAPE OF LIGHT: 100 YEARS OF PHOTOGRAPHY + ABSTRACT ART’

Tate Modern, London


“Why should the inspiration that comes from an artist’s manipulation of the hairs of a brush be any different from that of the artist who bends at will the rays of light?”
— Pierre Dubreuil

”Photography is all about finding new ways of looking.”
Gallery guide

To The Essence

The last Modernist photography exhibition the Tate ran, ‘The Radical Eye’, effectively scuppered the standard model. The claim was no longer credible that photography served Modernism by taking from it the rote task of faithfully recording stuff, like a servant carrying out his master’s chores. Instead, it was seized on as a Modernist medium in its own right. As said at the time: “The lens was taken up as an artists’ instrument as much as the paint brush or sculptor’s mallet, if not a tool for modern times which rendered its predecessors redundant.”


But that show’s chief focus was the human figure. Abstract photography might mark a bigger jump. In fact it strikes many as actively self-contradictory. Surely photography is always contingent, always of something. The coiffured celebrity, the scenic view, the significant event… that comes first, and then draws the photographers to it like a magnet.

This is because many define abstract art quite narrowly - as the non-representational. Mondrian’s coloured squares are abstract because they’re not based on an actual scene he happened on, and so on. But it also means ‘to remove from’ or ‘reduce to its essence’. Both of which come up in this show. As Aaron Siskind says: “When a painter paints a picture it can be immediately abstract… A band of paint is simply a band of paint. When a photographer makes nature abstract, an attempt is made to transform a realistic scene into an abstraction.”

So abstract photography does see the real world but only as raw materials, to sift through and utilise. Man Ray’s quoted as saying “instead of producing a banal representation of a place, I’d rather take my handkerchief out of my pocket, twist it to my liking, and photograph it as I wish.”

And it was ever thus. The entire basis of composition lies in boiling art down into a set of shapes and forms, which can then be arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner. These then attract the eye, an eye which only later recognises what those shapes and forms have been made to represent – cylinders resolve into torsos, ellipses become heads, and so on. Abstract art just does away with the unnecessary final stage, and makes the composition the end-all. So just like ambient music is really a way of listening, abstract is less an art style and more a way of looking, where composition is prized above representation.

Photography, precisely because it has to be contingent on something, is a good way of accentuating this. Significantly, Paul Strand named his pieces ‘Abstract’ then gave away their origin in the rest of the title, as with ’Abstraction, Porch Shadow, Connecticut’ (1916, below). The point wasn’t to hide away the way they were made, like in a magic trick, but to display it.


This show is more about the interrelationship of photography and abstract art than abstract photography in itself. Following the example of ’Camera Work’,
a photography journal run by Alfred Stieglitz between 1903 and 1917, it often sets up side-by-side comparisons of photographs with paintings, the labels clustered together. So for example a Mondrian sits beside German Lorca’s ’Mondrian Window’ (1960, below).

Different Eyes


A driving force behind Modernism was that we now live primarily in a made world, so there’s little sense clutching to the aesthetic rules or subject-matters of our forefathers. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s quoted as saying “we see the world with entirely different eyes”. So Lorca’s combination of rigid geometric forms is something we’re likely to encounter, despite its absence from nature. The fact that it’s a window, something you’re supposed to look through rather than at, just emphasises the way it’s about reframing things.

And of course Mondrian was inspired by the geometry of urban environments in the first place, particularly New York. Though I’d suggest Lorca works better than Mondrian precisely because the image is captured rather than composed out of nothing. Things work almost the other way up. Because we’re looking at a photo of a made object not something painted by hand, it’s the imperfections which we notice. And it’s those imperfections which look so glorious.

Also, if the urban environment gave new views it also provided no viewpoints. Such as the sheer towering cliff of a tall building, so regularly punctuated, of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s ’Balconies’ (1925, below).


And once this new way of seeing is established, we bear its imprint. We carry our different eyes with us everywhere. So Bill Brandt’s ’East Sussex Coast’ series (1957, example below), features a human figure in a natural environment, but abstracts from them regardless. In its contrast between the contours of the human form and the flat horizon, it’s similar to the sculpture of Henry Moore.


But the weakness here is the obvious one. Continue insisting that photography is the cousin of painting, and it will only ever be the poor relation. Modernism’s liberating promise to painting was that it could see itself as a thing in itself, it didn’t have to imitate to survive in polite company. It should do no less for photography. However, as the paintings start to thin out mid-way through this (chiefly) chronological exhibition, maybe that story has a happy ending.

As said photography is always of pieces of the world. Yet it contains no inherent sense of scale. Those limbs Bill Brandt snapped on a Sussex beach, couldn’t they be monumental in size? We can, if we want, blow up a pin to wall size or reduce a city to a postage stamp. Cinema jumps between these scales from one second to the next. And the cumulative effect of this show is similar. Our eyes dart continually between all of this - scales, angles and viewpoints - until we no longer even notice.


So a work like Karol Hiller’s ’Heliographic Composition XXIV’ (1936, above) takes on a Malevich-like mysticism. It could be an aerial view of a modern city, a close-up of machine parts, or simply some geometry Hiller himself assembled. It’s not obvious whether it’s bigger or smaller in scale than our everyday senses, merely that it’s outside of them. The forms become idealised, floating in a space not subject to the norms of physics. The term ‘Heliographic’ came from his desire to unite photography, painting and graphic design, ideally within the space of one artwork.

Subjective Photography

Another advantage of photography is that it seemed inherently a more democratic medium. It was simply easier to take a snap than paint a painting. And even those who didn’t, or did so in merely a casual way, might respond less credulously and more critically when presented with a photography exhibition. The Bauhaus for example sought to level hierarchies among the arts, if not between them and the crafts. Which led to them, as the show explains in a slightly Finbarr Saunders moment, “encouraging experimentation in the darkroom”. Their tutor Maholy-Nagy, already quoted above, started as a painter but soon took to photography. And his photos, at least in my view, eclipse his paintings in quality.

This extended to subject matter. Rodchenko’s primary purpose was to capture the modern urban environment. He might well have developed his own authorial style while doing so, but the subject matter was accessible to all - requiring no specialised knowledge. The above should be seen as a range of ideas, and different artists might have adhered to them to different degrees, but which point in a broadly similar direction.


Meanwhile, other works question artistic intent altogether. Take for example Brassai (the pseudonym of Gyula Halász). His series of ‘Involuntary Sculptures’ (example above from 1932) were essentially found abstracts, everyday items he’d photograph in great close-up. What would otherwise seem ephemeral became foregrounded. As he said at the time “There is nothing more surreal than reality itself. If reality fails to fill us with wonder, it is because we have fallen into the habit of seeing it as ordinary.”


Brassai also held a fascination for Parisian graffiti, example above. Rather than try to persuade you of the artistic merit of their subject, his photographs present these scratchings as inscrutably strange as rock art. In one way there’s an overlap between this and the way Abstract Expressionist artists such as Mark Tobey would evoke ancient, indecipherable hieroglyphs. But in another…

Someone, obviously, must have made that graffiti for it to be there. But that’s not where Brassai’s interest lies. Paris isn’t a canvas for his subject, it is his subject. As most of his examples are scratched or scoured into the wall, it’s often hard to tell deliberate mark making from accidental wear and tear. Perhaps one sometimes led to the other, the way cave paintings sometimes exploited unusual shapes of rock.


Aaron Siskind took similar photos in America, such as ’Los Angeles 3’ (1949, above). And with Siskind the notion is stronger of chance discovery as a means of accessing an otherwise invisible underlying process. For at Black Mountain College he taught alongside the Pope of Chance John Cage. (Rauschenberg was one of his pupils, and it shows.)

These photographs reflect the spirit of the magical aphorism “as above, so below”. The vast cities of Paris and Los Angeles are too big a fit for the most wide-angle lens, but can be captured in microcosm. The dilapidation is important, as it contrasts with the artifice of the urban environment and shows a humanised, lived-in space. (Just as there is no rust or peeling painting in those Bauhaus or Constructivist images.)

But it doesn’t work in the social crusading sense of exposing urban decay. It’s inaccurate to read them as presenting Modernist idealism gone rusty. It’s more that they have an aesthetic all their own, the way older people can develop character lines. It’s more that they act as a map of the cities’ spirits just as a more literal map capture their streets.



A different approach is taken by Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé with ’Jazzmen’ (1961, above). The residue of overlaid torn posters is something that has always fascinated me whenever I come across it. It’s interesting to note what this is not. Cubism took a hammer to letters as much as it did bottles, guitars and heads. But it always took a single image and fractured it. Whereas this is clearly multiple images superimposed, as if jostling for space. The show tells us his interest lay not the posters themselves but the act of tearing them, which he saw as “a spontaneous art of the street”.

However he has given this work the title “Jazzmen”, and the image seems centred around the guitar-sporting torso. Like Jazz did with music, de la Villeglé is taking apart and recombining something previously familiar.

And how would we represent a city sonically? The City Symphony films of the Twenties, took their structure, as it says here, “from the movements and motifs of orchestral symphonies… rather than the dynamics of narrative pacing.” They largely assumed a modern city was as grand, as cohesive, as composed as an orchestral work. Morning traffic was like fanfares, and so on. Yet if that high-minded notion ever matched the way we actually experience cities, it didn’t survive that optimistic decade.

Whereas, unlike these films (and also unlike Brassai’s found graffiti), the jazz analogy does not assume a city can be condensed down to a single item. Instead it’s composed of neighbours who do not choose one another but find a way to get along; a city is a collage to its very heart. But, more than that, the analogy assumes a city is in a continual process of being reworked and repurposed, a neighbourhood built for one thing transforming into something else, one façade put up over another but then itself starting to fray.

Anti Subject Matter, Anti-Photography

Let’s do the ‘meanwhile’ thing again, and cut to pure abstract photography. The show describes this as “focused on the tools of the medium rather than real world objects. They used photography to consider the inner mechanisms of the world and explored the possibility of creating photography that could break free from subject matter altogether.” Belina Kolarova enthused over it, “how little is needed for its creation!”


Bronislaw Schalb, in works such as ’Untitled’ (1957, above), burned, scratched and painted straight onto the negative. And the non-title is significant, there isn’t a porch shadow that if followed might lead us back to the world we know. Perhaps what’s interesting is that even as you’re told this your mind recoils from the information, still tries to find a way to associate the photograph with things around us. You try to make it into an aerial view of a parched landscape, an experiment in a petri dish and so on. And, as so often, it’s the art that’s irresolvable which is the art that lingers.

Yet while widespread these approaches weren’t universal. Otto Steinert, despite being part of the Bauhaus, later formed the ‘fotoform group’. Their credo of “subjective photography” re-emphasised the photographer’s role as “decision maker”, essentially reversing the perspective back onto the button-clicker and confirming the photographer had an artistic spirit after all.


Alfred Stieglitz went further, in his ’Equivalent’ series (1927-31, example above). He’d photograph clouds, as we all could, but in much the way a Romantic would have painted them. He spoke of their expressing his “inner resonances”, nature as an externalisation of the self. And these can be effective works in their own right. There’s no requirement for abstract photography to march in a single direction. It’s an approach, not a genre.

Evading Photography

The show is hung roughly chronologically, and as we get nearer to the present day I started to think more and more about getting nearer the exit door. Some of these later works do entertain interesting notions, but to which the actual artworks seem just an afterthought. While others just seem callbacks to earlier ideas, given a Post-Modern gloss. (Admittedly I’d have been more excited by Ed Rusha’s aerial views of sparse Californian parking lots had I not already encountered them at the Barbican’s ‘Constructing Worlds’ show.)

Of course that might sound like something I always say. But painting and sculpture ceased to be culturally cutting-edge a long time ago. While photography could hardly be any less prevalent. But perhaps that’s the problem…

Perhaps the ubiquitousness of the digital camera and its incorporation into the mobile phone, has meant that photography has become too easy, that a Goldilocks moment has been passed and being photographed no longer had any significance. But that doesn’t seem the whole of it.

The two best works (ironically two of the most recent) provide an anti-photography but of a different kind, one which kind of fetishises its limitations. Photography is associated with demarcating, with providing hard evidence. A camera’s version of events trumps a person’s. “Photos or it didn’t happen” is a phrase. Isn’t it time to start screwing with all that? And notably other works attempt a similar thing, just less successfully than these two.


First let’s look at Maya Rochat ‘A Rock In a River’ (2018, above), providing what the show describes as “fragmented pictures of digital textures, geological forms and organic matter.” It covers the final wall of the gallery with a backdrop combined with a projected lightshow. Though appealingly we also see a version of this over the entrance, as if it envelops everything contained within.

Its colourful degeneration of form calls back less to the Bauhaus than the Sixties. Though arguably it’s formlessness is not part of the psychedelic era which gets most recycled, which has more to do with the ‘sharp’ look of the post-mod hippie. It doesn’t just counter resolution with the incohate, it suggests that chaos is the primal state of things. Rochat has commented “each person has an experience that’s unique - just by being there you are activating the show… each moment is there for you, and then it’s gone. You can’t really document it.” Which means, not for the first time, I comment enthusiastically this is something you can’t just cut around, capture and stick on the internet. Next to an internet image of it I've stuck on the internet.


While E.I. City 1’ by Antony Cairns (2018, above), the poster image for the show, takes a modern city image then subjects it to a “complex developing process” I don’t claim to understand, but which seems designed to recreate the organic processes of early film. Contrary to Maholy-Nagy’s futurism, this is like framing our world through yesterday’s eyes. His images are postcard rather than wall size, suggesting a circle being completed.

And what gives these works their appeal? As I said previously “today we’re filmed for simply walking down the street.” Only in May a man was fined simply for attempting to avoid facial recognition technology, despite being on no wanted lists.

It’s not just there are more cameras, it’s that current urban environments are designed to be camera-compliant. Under advanced capitalism, all is not just a panopticon but a smoothed down surface built around observation. The outdoor space we pass through increasingly resembles an open-plan office.

Of course these days people are always photographing themselves, then publicly uploading the minutiae of their lives. This is often used to claim that, if they’re also being filmed, that can’t be considered oppressive. But this misses the insidiousness of the way it works. It’s become a process which turns us into subjects rather than autonomous agents. To be watched, to be viewed over, isn’t an imposition on your existence. It has become your existence. So of course we then subjectify ourselves. Photos or you didn’t happen.

Ironically this may have best been described by the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem back in the Sixties, before much of this technology existed:

“We think we are living in the world, when in fact we are being positioned in a perspective. No longer the simultaneous perspective of primitive painters, but the perspective of the Renaissance rationalists. It is hardly possible for looks, thoughts and gestures to escape the attraction of the distant vanishing-point which orders and deforms them, situates them in its spectacle.

”Power is the greatest town-planner. It parcels out public and private survival, buys up vacant lots at cut price, and only permits construction that complies with its regulations. Its own plans involve the compulsory acquisition of everybody. It builds with a heaviness which is the envy of the real town-builders that copy its style, translating the old mumbo-jumbo of the sacred hierarchy into stockbroker-belts, white collar apartments and workers flats. (Like, for example, in Croydon.)”

In short surveillance is no so widespread that the Modernist presumption of ‘The Radical Eye’ has now been inverted, the ability to exist autonomously lies precisely in not being photographed, not being catalogued and indexed. But to be outside the frame no longer seems a realistic option.

So our refuge has come to lie in the motion blur, the lack of resolution, the file error, the last few imperfections left. They appeal to us as a hole does to a hunted rabbit. Even the logo of the show is rendered out of register, an enticingly fuzzy glow to convey how homely imperfection can feel.

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