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HomeContentsThemes > Abstraction

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Photographers have continually sought to push the boundaries to create images that provoke the viewer and stimulate an emotional response. This is done in multiple ways involves subject selection, scale, camera techniques and image processing both chemical and digital. These deal with the technical sides of selecting and creating an image - the more important issue is how to create photographs with multiple meanings and depths of emotional meaning far beyond the obvious. This theme explores the nature of abstraction and the reasoning, where possible, behind experimental photography.
1.   Defining the abstract
Although the use of symbols has been a constant theme in painting the use of abstract forms is surprisingly recent. A truly abstract work neither contains nor symbolizes an object in the visible realm. In the decorative arts this was used for ornamental reasons but in painting it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the possibility of creating paintings that were expressions of something not shown became fully appreciated. When the Italian Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) wrote in 1910 that his ideal was to be able to create a visual equivalent of sleep without showing any sleeping thing this was a challenge to everything in traditional painting. Music does this constantly through necessity but for visual art to deny itself the use of direct parallels was revolutionary. Painters like Arthur Dove (1880-1946) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) experimented with, and in the case of the latter wrote about in his pamphlet 'On the Spiritual in Art' ('Uder das Geistige in der Kunst') (1912), what later came to be called 'Abstract Art'. Kandinsky did his first non-figurative abstract gouache in 1910 and Dove his 'Abstract Number 2' at about the same time.
Abstract art
Wassily Kandinsky
Composition VII 
Max Weber
Chinese Restaurant 
These early examples of abstract paintings by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Max Weber (1881-1961) highlight a totally new way of thinking about art that evolved in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
The 1915 painting ‘Chinese Restaurant‘ by Max Weber may have been inspired by a visit to a restaurant but the jagged lines, strong colors and juxtapositions have created forms that bare little relationship to the physical restaurant. The title Composition VII selected by Kandinsky for his 1913 painting is significant because it doesn't even hint at a connection with a physical object or place - it is simply a composition.
At the time these works came out the predominant trend in salon photography was Pictorialism which was about as far removed from abstraction as an image could be. As photographers with imagination saw these paintings they appreciated that change was on the way.
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The importance of this step in painting was the way it had such a profound effect upon photography which is more closely assumed to be associated with capturing the real world with the click of a shutter. This jump in artistic thinking was contemporaneous with the great photographer, critic and motivating force for artistic photography Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) who was promoting modern art at his '291' gallery on New York's Fifth Avenue and through his writings. It was in the 291 gallery that the work of Arthur Dove was shown in 1910 - as were many other developing artists including Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and Picabia. Alfred Stieglitz formed a bridge between the traditional arts of sculpture and painting and the newer 'craft' of photography that was seeking artistic recognition. Stieglitz was a master of photography but he sought to extend the boundaries beyond the simply representational into seeking more philosophical depths.
Early examples of photographic abstraction
Paul Strand
Still Life with Pear and Bowls, Twin Lakes, Connecticut 
Paul Strand
Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut 
When Paul Strand (1890-1976) first took to abstraction in about 1915 he did not create the complicated fabrications that are increasingly common in contemporary fine art photography. He saw that abstract designs could be created by a different way of seeing the everyday. The ways that bowls could be piled up or the way that shadows formed were manifest opportunities.
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Abstract realists look for the deeper layers and emotions created by unrecognizable shapes that might bring out diverse reactions from the viewer. 'Abstract realism' defines the use of images that can be taken in the real world but the selection of the viewing angle, scale and other characteristics can convert the seemingly mundane into an abstraction of reality.
Examples include:
  • The street marking photographs of Ernst Haas create bizarre juxtapositions of colors and textures that enable the viewer to better understand the banality of the image but at the same time reflect upon the beauty of the subject portrayed.
  • The crushed cans, peeling paint, eroded and weathered stone, worn signs that Aaron Siskind started to photograph from the 1960's onwards.
Abstract realism
Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind 100 
Aaron Siskind
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Nino Migliori - Walls
Nino Migliori: Walls 
Nino Migliori (Photographer); Eugenio Riccòmini (Essay); & Marilena Pasquali (Foreword)
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Contemporary examples of photographic abstraction
Mario Giacomelli
Storie Della Terra 
1970s (ca)
Lillian Bassman
B, New York City 
1970 (ca)
Arnold Zageris
Blue Wall, detail, Torngat Mountains, Labrador 
Solar Storm 
2000, 14 July
We are now surrounded by so many images that we rarely pause to examine them closely and try to understand what we are actually seeing.
Frequently captions give the game away but with these images just marvel at what they are visually rather than how they were created or what they actually represent. Each of them comes from a different tradition and they are exquisitely abstract.
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2.   Experimental photography
In 1925 the Hungarian artist, photographer and theoretician László Moholy-Nagy published the book 'Malerei, Fotografie, Film' [Painting, Photography, Film] as volume 8 in the 'Bauhausbucher' series. This book came at a critical time as there was an ongoing struggle between those that saw traditional art as the basis for photography and the 'New Objectivity' movement in Germany that argued that the world should be shown unembellished and as it actually was - a view exemplified in the 1920's by photographers like Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966), Albert Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1952), and August Sander (1876-1964). In the introduction to his 1925 book László Moholy-Nagy enumerates the many ways in which a camera can be used creatively to generate images: here motion shots, varying angles, grey scales and lens distortion are all seen as new possibilities for visual experimentation that neither traditional photography nor the 'New Objectivity' represented.  
3.   Conclusions
The rich possibilities afforded by digital processing have blurred the distinctions between photography and graphic art. We must appreciate that this is not a new process and since the incorporation of the earliest photographs into print media there has been the ability to mix line art, photographs and text in novel ways. Some European photographers such as Alexander Rodchenko and John Heartfield pushed this to extraordinary levels and showed the richness that photomontage could bring.
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