I was reading an article on the Art Blart blog about an exhibition at the Tate Modern titled “Shape of Light: 100 years of photography and abstract art”. The idea of the show was to place abstract art works like paintings and sculptures alongside photographs. From the Tate press release:
A major new exhibition at Tate Modern will reveal the intertwined stories of photography and abstract art. Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art will be the first show of this scale to explore photography in relation to the development of abstraction, from the early experiments of the 1910s to the digital innovations of the 21st century. Featuring over 300 works by more than 100 artists, the exhibition will explore the history of abstract photography side-by-side with iconic paintings and sculptures…Press release from Tate Modern
In his post about this exhibition, Dr. Bunyan points out the dual nature of photography. The fact that a photograph is, by its process of mechanical or electronic reproduction, a copy of the physical world while at the same time through the skill and imagination of the photographer it can show something else to a viewer, something much less tangible, a feeling, an emotion.
A painter can start with a blank canvas and create something that springs completely from their experiences and imagination. A photographer must figure out how to take a ‘readymade’ if you will and bend it to his purpose. A simple way to do this is through a close-up: find some peeling paint on a wall and zoom in close until the frame is filled with only a small section of the paint. Once the usual visual signals that this is a wall with peeling paint on it are removed, the photo can take on an abstract quality. But is this really an abstract? Isn’t it still just a photo of a physical object? Hmmmm. I suppose it depends a bit on your definition of abstract.
What about my featured image up at the top? Is it abstract? Some days I say yes and some days I say no. It’s a photograph of the surface of a flowing stream in the sunlight. As the light reflects off the moving water it shimmers and shifts although it always maintains a basic pattern. I had to work at figuring out the right shutter speed, the right exposure, the right place to point my camera, the right weather conditions, etc. I don’t remember thinking specifically that I was setting out to create an abstract photo although I assumed that would happen and it became pretty obvious after the first few shots. I just wanted to capture the reflections that we usually overlook or even try to eliminate with a polarizing filter.
Perhaps the reflections themselves are in fact abstract. Are they a physical reality or are they illusion? I can’t touch them. If try to touch them, they disappear. Disturbing the water surface changes the reflections into some others. If I stand between the water and the sun, the reflections completely vanish. If I photograph an abstract ‘thing’ does it become physical? Have I actually converted an abstract into a reality by photographing it? Sort of a quantum thing – the reflections have no reality until I observe them.
Some people would say that all photographs are abstract since we take a three dimensional physical scene and change it into a two dimensional ‘abstraction’. While literally true, only annoying people make this claim. Our brains are comfortable with converting between two and three dimensions all the time. If we take a straight up photo of Aunt Milly nobody is going to remark later how abstract the photo is – they will understand that this is in fact a realistic representation of her.
Personally I’m going to say that photographs can be abstract. I’m not sure just any old close up of something weird should count. As usual the line is going to have plenty of room on either side for differing opinions. Hey, it’s just a word. A good photo is a good photo whether anyone considers it abstract or not. Still it’s fun to think about.