Monday, 11 April 2011

Abstraction and Photography: 1

This is a subject that I should have discussed for project one since many of my posts deal with one kind of abstraction or another.  Pictorial abstraction is conventionally defined as “a work of art with no recognizable subject”. This seems totally at odds with nature of photography which is essentially realistic and representational/ figurative.

The two approaches that have explored include the exaggeration of single characteristics like subjects form or its texture. The other approach generally includes the use of extremes close-ups, distortions and lighting effects. These effects transform the subject in such a way as to make it unidentifiable.  Although not strictly photographic, project one included lighting effects, blurring and numerous references to abstract art.  Project 2, is more photographic, but the imagery is distorted and is often unidentifiable or at times difficult to identify and abstract in nature. Certainly with the automatic-joiners that project 2 have produced, the imagery shifts from the representational to the abstract. 

“From the moment Cubism emerged in Europe, around 1907-8, its radically stylized geometric shapes prompted photographers- who were also influenced by Japonisme, Constructivism, and Wassily Kandinsky’s of abstraction (1913)- to imitate what then seemed the essence of Modernism (Mora, G 1998, p.39).  

Alvin Langdon Coburn The New York Octopus 1912

Alvin Langdon Coburn was said to be the first to intentionally abstract photographs. Evidence of this can be found in his 1912 series New York from its Pinnacles. The New York Octopus is a good example. Although many would deny Cubism is abstraction, its stylization of reality led photographers like Coburn to experiment with light and refracted mirrors in 1916. These works were called vortographs by Wyndham Lewis one of the key figures of Vorticism. 

Alvin Langdon Coburn Vortograph 1917

In 1916, Paul Strand made abstracts such as Porch Shadows. These works in turn inspired Fancis Bruguier and members of the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of America. There was an eagerness to link their photography to the avant-garde that was emerging from Europe. 

Paul Strand. Porch Shadows, 1916. 

The move towards abstraction quickly shifted towards the figurative and the stylization of the human body. This approach was associated quite strongly with the Clarence H. White School of Photography. From 1914 many of the professors and students like Laura Gilpin, Paul Outerbridge  Jr., Karl Struss, Margaret Watkins    and  Bernard S. Horne would produce photography informed by experimental abstraction.


Bernard S. Horne Design - Princeton
1917 (ca) Gelatin silver print
11 7/8 x 9 15/16

Margaret Watkins The Clarence H. White School of Photography: Design for Marble Floor, "Blythswood," Glasgow 1919

The work of the staff and students =were often reproduced in the magazine Photo=Graphic Art.


Mora, G., (1998) Photospeak,  New York: Abbeville Press.

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