What is abstraction?
Abstract art, like photography itself, is largely a twentieth century
phenomenon. In fact, one of the reasons why artists began to experiment
with abstraction is because they felt that photographs could do the job of
representing the world much better than a painter.
This painting by Picasso is obviously
a landscape. We can see the shapes
of houses and walls. But Picasso has
distorted reality. The perspective is
strange, almost as if he had moved
around and recorded different views
of the same scene in one picture.
By about 1910, artists like Picasso
began to look at the world in new
ways, frustrated by the artistic rules
that had existed in Europe since the
Renaissance. They looked to nonwestern art and other art forms like
music for their inspiration.
This image, by the photographer Laszlo
Moholy-Nagy shows the influence of
abstraction. We can see what the
photographer is looking at – a column of
balconies jutting out from the side of a
building with a person at the top looking
down. However, the unusual angle,
emphasis on line and form and interest in
the patterns created by the architectural
elements, reveals the photographer’s
fascination with the abstract qualities of the
Moholy-Nagy worked at The Bauhaus, a
radical college of art and design in
Germany, which taught its students that the
worlds of the artist and the designer should
combine to create a new kind of modern
Moholy-Nagy - Bauhaus Balconies, 1927
A new way of seeing
Some early photographers made their images look a lot like paintings. Perhaps they
felt that they would be taken more seriously. Some people felt that photography
wasn’t a real art form. Eventually, photographers gained the confidence to
experiment, just like other modern artists. They realised that the camera, rather than
just being good at making copies of reality, was a fantastic tool for seeing the world in
a new way.
Gertrude Kasebier - The Manger, 1899
platinum print, 31.8 x 25.4 cm (12 1/2 x 10 in.)
Frederick Sommer - Virgin and Child, St. Anne
and the infant St. John 1966
Living in the city
The camera was a fantastic tool for capturing the experience of living in the
modern city. As smaller, more lightweight cameras became available,
photographers could roam the city streets, searching for unusual views,
getting accustomed to the way the world looked through the viewfinder.
Here, the high viewpoint and long
shadows renders this group of
people and animals as an almost
abstract arrangement of forms.
An image can have abstract
properties even though its subject
Notice how Kertesz has framed the
figures in three distinct groups and
retained an empty space at the top
of the image.
Andre Kertesz - People and Shadows, 1928
What appears to be casual is, in
fact, carefully composed.
Moholy-Nagy - Street paving, 1929
Leonard Freed - New York City 1956
―drawing with light‖.
This image exploits light’s
ability to dissolve forms in
a dynamic play of
shadows and reflections.
The original motif (subject)
is no longer recognisable,
hence the title of the
Jaromir Funke Abstract Photo 1928-9
Harry Callahan - Chicago, 1946
This experimental photograph was created by leaving the camera shutter open
for an unusually long period whilst moving the camera. Single points of light are
transformed into lines and squiggles. The effect is rather like drawing with light.
You don’t always need a camera (or indeed a negative) to create a
photograph. Sometimes called Photograms or Rayographs, these images
are created by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing the
arrangement to light in the darkroom. Depending on the relative opacity of
the objects, and the degree to which they are moved around during
exposure, a variety of interesting effects can be achieved.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Photogram, 1926
Man Ray - Rayograph
Susan Dirges - Chladni figure, 1985
The still life has provided photographers with a rich source of abstract
imagery. After all, inanimate objects can be more easily manipulated than a
Florence Henri - Still Life Composition No.10, 1928
Irving Penn - Street Findings, NY 1999
The Art of Noise
Music is the only truly abstract art form. Visual artists, including
photographers, have long been fascinated by the challenge this presents.
How might a painting or a photograph aspire to be like music in the way that
it affects the viewer?
The Italian Futurists were
fascinated by the multisensory experience of
modern life and sought to
capture this in their images.
Here, the Bragaglia brothers
have chosen to leave the
shutter open in order to
record the dynamic
movements of a cello player.
Arturo & Anton Giulio Bragaglia - Alchimia musicale, 1932
In Focus: Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind began as a documentary photographer. His later work is
more abstract and reflects his interest in abstract expressionist painting. In
1951, at the invitation of Harry Callahan, Siskind joined the faculty of the
Institute of Design in Chicago. He was Professor of Photography until 1959,
when he became Director of the Photographic Department.
Jerome, Arizona, 1949 Gelatin silver
print 13 1/2 x 9 7/8 in.
Terrors and Pleasures of Levitation, No. 37, 1953
Siskind: graphic signs
"For the first time in my life, subject matter, as such, had ceased to be of
primary importance," Siskind said. "Instead, I found myself involved in the
relationships of these objects, so much so that these pictures turned out
to be deeply moving and personal experiences."
Chicago 16, 1957
Martha’s Vineyard, 1954
In Focus: Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Another American photographer who has explored a wide range of imagery, including
abstraction is Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Self-taught and an optician by profession,
Meatyard’s intense vision, interest in Eastern mysticism and restless formal and
technical experimentation, resulted in images which are often both melancholy and
"I work on several different groups of pictures which act on and with each other -ranging from several abstracted manners to a form of the surreal. I have been
called a preacher -- but, in reality, I'm more generally philosophical. I have never
made an abstracted photograph without content. An educated background in Zen
influences all of my photographs.‖
Untitled (Motion-Sound) 1970-71
Untitled (Motion-Sound) 1974
Meatyard experimented with the more technical and formal aspects of the
camera, using long exposures to record light reflecting off water, extreme
focus for his ―no-focus‖ images, and shallow depth of field for his ―Zen twigs‖
series. The visualization of the passage of time played an important role for
Meatyard in all of his photographs —from long exposures to the maturation of
his children, from timeworn buildings to the changing light gracing the natural
world. For one of his last series, titled ―Motion-Sound,‖ he made pictures by
moving the camera gently, creating multiple exposures of woodland scenes
that suggest visual sound patterns.
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