I have long been attracted to abstraction —more accurately, a particular type of abstraction – and have found it increasingly important in my work as a photographer. Recently, I began thinking about why that is; this essay is an attempt to organize those thoughts.
There are many who think abstraction in photography is a contradiction in terms, in that they believe photography is inherently a medium of representation. I disagree. Because photographs can depict people, places, and things with great and accurate detail doesn’t mean this is all it can do, or what it ‘should’ do. Instead, just as painting is defined as a medium of paint without regard to what kind of image is painted, photography should be defined as a medium of light without regard to what kind of image that light creates.
Indeed, this is precisely how it is defined by Diarmuid Costello in What is Abstraction in Photography? Costello cites a new generation of philosophers who state that “photographic imaging is henceforth identified by whether or not it implicates a ‘photographic event’ in its causal history – that is an event of recording information from a passing state of a light image formed in real time on a light sensitive surface. This can, but need not be, the camera’s film plane or sensor: it might equally be a piece of photographic paper or film exposed directly to a light source. What matters, as the term ‘photography’ implies, is the role of light in the image.”1
Thus, abstraction in photography is just as ‘legitimate’ as representation or documentation, and as appropriate to that medium as it is to painting. Interestingly, many of abstraction’s earliest proponents – Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Nathan Lerner, and György Kepes – were both painters and photographers; indeed, Man Ray would have been quite happy with Costello’s definition, since he believed “It is light that creates”2 and that “light is an instrument as subtle as the brush.”3
That said, regardless of the medium what, exactly, defines or characterizes abstraction? It is not an ‘ism’ or style: abstraction is, instead, an approach to making art – a vision of what the artist wants from art and what s/he believes a work of art should be. This is a personal, not an art historical conclusion (although art historian Mark Rosenthal concurs in Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline).
That abstraction is not a singular style is demonstrated by the considerable difference in look and feeling of many abstract works created since the beginning of the 20th century – a Kandinsky, for instance, feels quite different from an Ellsworth Kelly, which in turn feels quite different from a Peter Halley, although they are all abstract. Common to all, however, is a belief in the autonomy of the work of art – its ability to convey meaning without reference to anything in the world outside. As Clive Bell expressed it in Art: “To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs…. We require nothing but sensibility.”4
I distinguish between two types of abstraction: the first is based on the belief that a work of art is fundamentally metaphoric and that, as Ad Reinhardt said, “What is not there is more important than what is there;” the second is based on the belief that the work’s physical properties are all that matter, and that it neither has nor needs any metaphysical, emotional, or spiritual meaning – that, as Frank Stella famously said, “What you see is what you see.”
It is the first type, which I will call Evocative Abstraction, that attracts me most strongly and has particular meaning for my own imagery: the work of the pre-WWI ‘pure’ abstract painters such as Malevich, Kandinsky, and Delaunay, and photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Otto Steinert; and the abstract expressionist painters (especially Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman) and photographers such as Paul Caponigro and Minor White in the late 40s, 50s and 60s.
What attracts me to them is their desire to convey pure feeling, their conviction that art can express the ineffable and intangible, and their success in creating forms whose effect goes beyond the forms per se, as the work in the second group does not. The evocative abstract artists were at home with words like ‘sublime,’ transcendent,’ spiritual” and ‘immanence.’ Over and over in their writings one comes across phrases such as “Form is the outward expression of inner meaning” (Kandinsky) and “What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things” (Brancusi).
What strikes me repeatedly in the work of the evocative abstract painters is the blurred or softened edges of their form, the effect of which is that the images seem to vibrate. The edges in Malevich’s forms in his iconic Suprematist works may seem at first glance to be straight, hard lines, but, looking more closely one sees they are not; they are slightly softened. This is true of Agnes Martin’s work as well, and many of Newman’s ‘zip’ paintings.