photograph by mark whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Photography in the Abstract

Let’s talk abstract photography. To do that we’ll need to talk a bit about abstract art in general and to do that we need to talk about music. Stick with me here.

Imagine that we walk into a concert hall where an orchestra is rehearsing a newly composed symphony. Since we just wandered in off the street we don’t know anything about the music – it’s newly created so we’ve never heard it before, there’s no program so we have no title and we don’t know who composed it, we don’t recognize the conductor or any of the performers. We sit down and listen.

What is the music about?

Is the music light and airy? Is it deep booming and heavy? Is it fast? Is it slow? If we close our eyes and let our minds wander, what does it make us think about? If we had half a dozen friends with us would we all think the music was about something different?

We don’t often realize it, but music is a very abstract art form.

Abstract as in an art form that doesn’t represent an external reality but tries to express meaning through forms, patterns, and tonal variations. We’re OK with that. We’re so OK with it that we don’t think twice about it.

So why do we treat visual art differently?

Why do we demand that a painting be representational? A composer can use pure forms and patterns to express meaning, but a painter must only paint that which is concrete and easily recognizable.

This is exactly the kind of question that artists like Russian born Wassiliy Kandinsky started to ask at the turn of the twentieth century.

With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.

A painter…cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art.

Wassily Kandinsky

Artists had grown tired of painting bowls of fruit, portraits of rich patrons, and religious scenes. The world was changing – becoming technological. They wanted to do something different. They wanted to be able to use their art to express the emotions and desires of their souls. They wanted to be free to use pure forms, patterns, textures, and colors to express what mere reproduction cannot.

Now what about photography?

Born in a laboratory in the 1820s, eighty years later photography was still considered a science experiment and not “Art”. Just the fact that one could point a box at something for a while and through some chemical processes end up with an exact copy of the subject was so amazing that no one thought to look any further than that for many many years.

Then along came Alfred Stieglitz.

Through his passion for art and photography, his galleries, his writings, and his relationships with artists and museum directors, Stieglitz almost single-handedly transformed photography from a science experiment to an art form accepted worldwide.

The Armory Show in 1913 was the first large exhibition of modern art in the US.

Held in New York City, the show included works from the likes of Cezanne, Duchamp, Picasso, Monet, and Rodin. Kandinsky showed this abstract painting which was purchased by none other than Alfred Stieglitz.

Improvisation 27 by Vasily Kandinsky
Title: Improvisation 27
Artist: Vasily Kandinsky 1866–1944
Date: 1912
Medium: Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stieglitz started out championing the ‘pictorial’ style of photography which relied on heavy darkroom manipulation, soft focus, and ethereal lighting to make images that imitated oil and watercolor paintings. It was felt that if photos looked like paintings, they would gain art world credibility. As his artistic vision matured Stieglitz abandoned pictorialism in favor of ‘straight’ photography. He realized that photography needed to stop imitating the past and move to the forefront as the best art form to represent a new more technological society.

In 1907 he had captured the now famous image titled Steerage considered a watershed moment in the evolution of modern photography. Clear and sharp with cubist elements, this photograph left behind the affectations of the pictorial style and ushered in a new modern art form.

In 1923 Stieglitz began taking photographs of clouds.

It took some time, but he had finally made the connection between this abstract painting by Kandinski, the similarities between music and visual art, and photography. In these cloud photos, Stieglitz wanted to create images that were pure photography. He removed all frames of reference – all possibility that critics could claim that he was merely a recorder of famous people or scenes. These photos would be powerful in their own right. They would in fact be the first intentionally abstract photographs.

He showed the first 10 of these photos in an exhibit titled: ‘Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs’. He wrote in a letter to his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe (yes, that Georgia O’Keeffe), that he wanted the composer Earnest Bloch to see them and exclaim “Music! Music! Man, why that is music! How did you ever do that? “. Supposedly Bloch did indeed say something like that when he attended the exhibition.

Equivalent - 1927 by Alfred Stieglitz
Artist: Alfred Stieglitz 1864–1946
Date: 1927
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1924 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston convinced Stieglitz to donate some of his cloud photos to their collection. This marked the first time that a major US museum had acquired photographs.

Stieglitz continued to create and exhibit cloud photographs for some ten years eventually referring to the whole body of work as Equivalents. Why Equivalents? We’ll talk about that some other time.


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