What's Not There

For most photographers, the defining characteristic of lens-based photography is that a subject/object has to exist in front of the lens. Indeed, this is what attracts them to the medium: a desire to capture the 'thing-itself'.

What attracts me to the medium is that a certain quality of indirect light looks uniquely beautiful when rendered in silver—more specifically, in black and white. Unlike sunlight, which falls on things and emphasizes surface, this light is an ambient glow that seems to emanate from within and to be part of space itself.

Interior Light image
Interior Light #17

Paul Guinard has described it as an “inner, incorporeal light which flows everywhere inexhaustibly and is the manifestation of energy, life and movement.” 1 The rendering of this light is what I love in photographs.

For most viewers as well, capturing the thing-itself is the defining element of photography. Hence the first question asked upon meeting a photographer is invariably, “What do you photograph?”, whereas upon meeting a painter it is “What kind of work do you do?” To me, this points to the most fundamental difference between the medium of painting and that of photography: namely, that in the former one can create directly from one’s head, whereas in the latter one cannot. A photographer must first create in front of the lens what exists in his/her head. Since what I seek is largely imagery of light and space – and since this exists partly as visions in my head and is not readily found in the external world – the presumed defining characteristic of photography presents, for me, a significant problem. When photographing landscapes, for instance, rather than going out to find something I wanted to photograph, I had a type of image in my mind and hoped I would be fortunate enough to have it materialize. There were many, many days during which I did not take a single photograph. In the photographs I did take, the landscapes are more about space than land: topographical details are minimal and serve only to pull the eye back toward the endless horizon. Similarly, in the Interior Light series, the architectural details are not the subject; instead, they serve as vehicles for the light.

Extended Landscape Image
Extended Landscape #81-42-6
Interior LightImage
Interior Light, White Shadows #2

Thus, my effort has been to de-literalize what is in front of the lens, and to emphasize the no-thingness around it. To be clear, this does not negate the subject/object, but rather, transforms it from something seen that is valued for its striking outer aspects to something seen that is the expression of something unseen. Transformation is the very essence of art. Edward Weston famously wrote that he wanted to “photograph a rock, have it look exactly like a rock, yet be more than a rock.” 2

Forebodings image
Forebodings #87-52a

I would amend that to “have it feel like a rock, yet be more than a rock.” Ironically, in painting, where achieving likeness requires considerable skill, we still look for something more—for a mysterious inner life—whereas in photography, where likeness is the norm, most viewers do not. In other words, while we tend to accept a painting as a metaphor, we insist that a photograph must be a representation.

But one can create photographic metaphors. This is my aim; and abstracting is one way of trying to achieve it. An abstract image is most commonly defined as one that is non-objective—an image that is pure form; and I would narrow this to make a distinction between pattern and expressive form. No matter how fine a composition may be, form that does not lead beyond itself is pattern. Expressive form, on the other hand, evokes something ineffable; it creates an image that is not simply visually satisfying, but one that is also emotionally and spiritually resonant.

Passage image
Passage #85-33a

In addition to total non-objectivity, there is another type of abstraction: one that renders the subject/object in such a way that it is still recognizably figurative, yet is not the thing-itself. Painters have practiced this in many ways: deformation/distortion (Bacon); mannered exaggeration (El Greco); and reduction of the subject/object to its essence (Giacometti), to name (and simplify) but a few.

Animus image
Animus #54

These practices are just as valid in photography; and I have tried to learn from painters who have used them—quite specifically in the case of Bacon's violently thrust-out jaws and gaping mouths (Animus) and his emotionally powerful vertical striations (Veiled Still Lifes). I have for many years also made use of a scrim in front of various objects. This creates an obstacle between the viewer and the subject/object, de-literalizing the thing-itself while intensifying its aura.

Veiled Still Life image
Veiled Still Life #51a

In creating both types of abstraction, and in my earlier pared-down, “empty” landscapes and interiors as well, what drives the imagery is a desire to make visible a quality that is invisible—beyond the thing-itself. There is still a subject in front of the lens; it still matters. But, as Ad Reinhardt said, “What is not there is more important than what is there.” 3

1. Paul Guinard, El Greco (Lausanne: Skira Books, 1956), 111.
2. Edward Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume II, California, ed. Nancy Newhall (Millerton, New York: Aperture Books, 1973), 154.
3. Ad Reinhardt, Art as Art: The Selected Writing of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: The Viking Press, 1975), 108.

The Pull of Abstraction

All art constantly aspires to the condition of music. – Walter Pater

In The Aesthetic Dimension, Herbert Marcuse writes that art’s power resides in “the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is not perceived, said and heard in everyday life” – in other words, art’s power lies in its distance from reality.

Full Circle image
Full Circle #04-42

It could be argued that innumerable great works of art are not at all estranged from reality – portraits, still lives, genre paintings, and so on – but this is not really true: the subjects may be ‘realistic’ and highly detailed, but it is the illusion of reality – more precisely, the artist’s particular interpretation of reality, to which we respond.

The detail in a Rembrandt may be utterly life-like, but the light that is typical of his work does not exist in the real world; even the subjects of photo-realist works are so hyped, so starkly ‘in your face’, that they are distanced from what we see in everyday life.

It may seem especially strange for a photographer to believe art’s power lies in its estrangement from reality. But this is so only if one believes that photography’s essential characteristic is its representational capabilities – which I emphatically do not. Instead, I believe, as Diarmuid Costello argues in “What is Abstraction in Photography?” that the medium is defined by the recording of “a light image formed in real time on a light-sensitive surface.”2 Thus, photography is a medium of light. The nature of the photographic image is no more pre-determined than is the nature of a painted image. Indeed, Man Ray believed “it is light that creates,” and that “light is an instrument as subtle as the brush.”

Light – more specifically, a particular quality of indirect, natural light – has always been of primary importance in my work. In one of my earliest series, Interior Light, while architectural planes constitute the ostensible subjects, they are merely vehicles by which to make the light palpable. My 1980s landscapes of deserts and plains are similarly pared down; the topographical details do not serve as points of interest in the scene, but, rather, as guides to pull the eye back through space. Just as the architectural elements were not the true subjects in Interior Light, the land is not really the subject in Extended Landscapes; instead, it is the space between land and sky, and the vibration of light that emanates from it. My aim in these series was not to describe or suggest any narrative, but, rather, to evoke feeling directly. In this sense, these early works were tending toward abstraction.

Extended Landscape Image
Extended Landscape #81-13a

Interior Light Image
Interior Light, White Shadows #2

In 1985 I became so frustrated by being often unable to find the quality of light and space I was seeking in the landscape that I decided to try to create it in the studio. By luck or intuition, I began working with a scrim of translucent white fabric backlit by indirect, natural light. This scrim – first white, and then a black one as well – has become my medium, in both senses of the word: it constitutes the medium in which I work; and, through its diffuse glow of light, it acts as a conduit to that ineffable quality I seek.

White Composition image
White Composition #4

For a while, I worked with the scrim on its own, manipulating it to create pure form out of light and shadow – in effect, composing with light. White Compositions, Whiteness, and Passage are examples of such nonobjective work. More recently, I have created abstractions – including the Quickening, Force Field, and Sensing Presence series – that combine the scrim with translucent objects placed behind it.

Quickening Image
Quickening #18-07b
Force Field Image
Force Field #19-54-C

Old as the concept of “abstraction” may be, there is frequent confusion about its definition. Literally, the word means “a pulling away from.” Thus, abstract work does not require the elimination of everything recognizable from the real world: de Kooning’s ‘Woman’ paintings make this clear. What it does require is for these figures or objects to be pulled away from reality; they remain recognizable, but only as remnants of themselves. My goal is to seek from these remnants something that is felt but not readily seen – a desire I share with the first generation of abstract artists, who wanted to make the invisible visible. Hence, Quickening and Force Field are just as abstract as my nonobjective Passage series. The former two contain objects, but the objects have been de-literalized – they are no longer the things themselves.

The scrim is useful in accomplishing this de-literalization: when I place translucent objects behind it, it becomes a veil between viewer and ‘subject,’ confusing the sense of space. Further, I adjust the objects’ angles and their distance behind the scrim, so that only the points of contact with the scrim are sharp, while sections of their receding edges blur or disappear entirely. It becomes difficult to determine where, and sometimes what, these objects are. There is no sense of figure and ground, as the objects, stripped of their solidity and only partially visible, seem to merge with the scrim. What is most important to me is for the images to have a feeling of being ‘charged’ – vibrating with a sense of depth, light, space, and movement.

Force Field image
Force Field #21-131

Ultimately, abstraction is not a style; it is an approach to making art – of which there are many, as varied as the individual sensibilities of those who create it and those who view it. At one end of the spectrum are those who want to learn from art something about the world we inhabit; and at this moment there is great demand for art that addresses social issues. At the opposite end, there are those who doubt that art is an effective agent of social change, and who seek from it an ineffable experience, both sensuous and spiritual, that is different from any other in our daily life. Such is the experience afforded by abstract art. Its power, like that of music, lies precisely in its otherness.

1. Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 72
2. British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 58, issue 4, Oct. 2018, p. 390

Thoughts on Abstraction

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 forms, 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.

Agnes Martin painting
Agnes Martin, Heather, 1958
Barnett Newman painting
Barnett Newman, Onement 1, 1948

Moreover, the colors are not solid and smooth; instead, they are subtly modulated so that it feels as if you can see into, or even through the surface, promoting a feeling of depth and vibration in space. There is also a sense of movement between Malevich’s forms.

Kazimir Malevich painting
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition - Airplane Flying, 1915

By contrast, in the work of ‘hard-edged’ abstract artists, such as Ellsworth Kelly, both forms and grounds consist of smooth surfaces (Lawrence Alloway referred to them as “immaculate”), unmodulated, and solid, promoting a feeling of flatness; the forms themselves seem firmly fixed in place and monumental. Compare, for example, the effect of Kelly’s Yellow Over Dark Blue, 1965 & Rothko’s Untitled (Black, Red Over Black on Red), 1964.

Mark Rothko painting
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black, Red Over Black on Red), 1964
Ellsworth Kelly painting
Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow over Dark Blue, 1965

Another way of describing the difference between Kelly’s ‘hard-edged’ work and Rothko’s ‘soft-edged’ paintings might be to say that Kelly works with shapes, and Rothko with forms: shape, as defined by Webster, is “the surface configuration of a thing…. Something distinguished from its surroundings by its outline (italics mine). In other words, shape is flat. Form, on the other hand, is “the structure of something” (Webster), and “an element of art [that] is three-dimensional and encloses space.” For Kandinsky, such form will “advance or retreat and make of the picture a living thing, and so achieve an artistic expansion of space.” 5

Wassily Kandinsky painting
Vasily Kandinsky, Landscape with Rain, 1913

Furthermore, as Rosenthal notes, Kandinsky maintained that such form “originate[s] in authentic feeling, and [is] therefore filled with inherent content… Something is always being represented.” 6 It is interesting to note that, while it’s impossible to define precisely such ‘significant form,’ as Clive Bell termed it, it has been described in very similar ways over time to indicate form that feels, not only three dimensional, but also alive – whether it be Kandinsky’s form that “vibrates”, Rothko’s, ‘plastic’ form that gives the “tangible sensation of recession and advancement,” 7 Arthur Dove’s forms filled with “movement, space and, above all, light” 8 or my own ‘charged form.’

Lynn Stern painting
Lynn Stern, Quickening #19-51a, 2019

The concept of four-dimensional space, which was first proposed at the turn of the 20th century, was propounded a decade later by the artist Max Weber and the poet and critic, Guillaume Apollinaire. In his article, “The Fourth Dimension From a Plastic Point of View,” published in 1910 in Stieglitz’s Camera Work: A Photographic Quarterly, Weber referred to the “fourth dimension, the dimension of infinity…. It is the space that envelops… any solid; or the intervals between objects or volumes of matter if receptively beheld. It is somewhat similar to color and depth in musical sounds. It… stirs emotion. A form at its extremity still continues reaching out into space if it is imbued with intensity or energy.” Using the same language in “La Quatrième Dimension,” which became a chapter in his 1913 book about Cubism, Les Peintres Cubistes, Apollinaire wrote of “space externalizing itself in all directions… space itself, the dimension of the infinite.” 9 It is always noted that the forms in analytic cubist paintings are seen from many different angles at once, but beyond that, they seem to me to be constantly moving in space – vibrating in space. Or, more accurately, vibrating with space, for there is no separation whatsoever between figure and ground. Frequently, the clustered volumes seem to project powerfully toward us as if they might explode from the canvas, bringing the space with them.

Georges Braque painting
Georges Braque, Violin and Candlestick, 1910
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy painting
Lάszló Moholy-Nagy, Photogramme, 1922-1923

While later evocative abstract artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove, as well as the Abstract Expressionists, did not, to my knowledge, refer to a fourth dimension, space itself continued to be of great importance in their work. In addition to the tremendous sense of depth in O’Keeffe’s work – of forms opening outward – the edges of her forms are nuanced; the color doesn’t ‘sit’ next to another color, but rather, it shades into it, moves into and around it, so that the entire image feels alive. This is accompanied, as in the work of Arthur Dove as well, by a radiant luminosity and a sense of quiet but intense energy emanating from the forms.

Arthur Dove painting
Arthur Dove, Waterfall, 1925
Georgia O’Keeffe painting
Georgia O’Keeffe, Series I White and Blue Flower Shapes, 1919

These same qualities characterize the work of certain abstract expressionist painters—Rothko, for example, spoke of “a permeating tactile medium in whose essence all objects participate” 10 – though the emphasis on movement and the vastness of space – ‘the infinite’ – took on a more emotional or spiritual connotation; this is clearly reflected in the works’ titles, such as Barnett Newman’s series called “Onement” as well as in Rothko’s writings, wherein he called art “the language of the spirit,” 11 and said it “must provide the implications of infinity to any situation.” 12 While much has been made of the flatness of Jackson Pollock’s work, visual perception differs from individual to individual, and, to my eye, Pollock’s drip paintings – some more than others – read not only from edge to edge but also back and forth in space. The tension alone between the thickest drips, which stand out almost in relief, and the less heavily painted or unpainted parts of the canvas, creates a feeling of spatial vibration. I see these works as exploding OUT as well as across.

Jackson Pollock painting
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952

If Abstraction is not a style, but rather, an approach to making art, the rigid distinction between abstraction and representation no longer obtains. I would argue that the opposite of ‘abstraction’ is not ‘figuration’: it is ‘literalism.’ The objective of abstraction is to move away from depiction / description of everyday reality. An abstract work can have elements of figuration and still be abstract – consider, for example, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” paintings. Indeed, showing remnants of figures, or distorting figures and objects, can be very powerful tools of expression and subjectivity. In this regard, I would cite the work of Francis Bacon and the “Deep South” photographs of Sally Mann. While neither of these artists is considered abstract (Bacon actually disliked abstraction), their work departs from realism in order to express pure feeling – a desire Bacon cited frequently.

Francis Bacon painting
Francis Bacon, Study After Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

Additionally, Bacon’s work has many of the previously cited visual characteristics of evocative abstraction: the powerful sense of three-dimensionality, the movement through space, the tremendous energy emanating from within the image, and the blurred edges that seem to merge into one another —indeed, many of his forms seem to be dissolving into space before our eyes. Mann’s luminous “Deep South” images are, I would argue, abstracted. With their blurring, soft focus, chemical alterations, and other distortions, they are far from depictions of the actual landscapes: instead, they are evocations of ghostly spaces, imbued with Mann’s feelings about the land, its past, and her involvement with it.

Sally Mann photograph
Sally Mann, Deep South, Scarred Tree, 1998

It should be stressed that the early proponents of abstraction – both the advocates of pure abstraction in painting, such as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, and the Pictorialist and early modernist photographers such as Stieglitz, Steinert, and Man Ray – all viewed their work as revolutionary, as did the mid-century abstract expressionist painters. For Stieglitz, what constituted the ‘revolution’ was to divorce photography from realistic, uninflected depiction and embrace subjective, expressive imagery; for Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, the revolution was spiritual (many artists in their circle were influenced by mysticism and the occult), and they believed, as Kandinsky wrote, that “Form is the outward expression of inner meaning” 13 and a path to transcendence; while, for Barnett Newman, the revolution was specifically social and political: “If my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism” he said in a 1970 interview. 14

It is ironic, then, that today abstraction is considered by many to be, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, frivolous. It is thought that art must be ‘socially conscious’ to be of any value, and that that such consciousness must be literal, in that it should address specific issues. Often, as with artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, while the work is visual, it has a very significant verbal component that gets the message across. While I don’t mean to denigrate this work, I believe that actual condemnation, no matter how satirical or graphically sophisticated, is not the only, or even the most effective, way for a work of art to oppose materialism or social injustice.

A different option is to offer a strictly visual experience that exists in a different realm, precisely the way music does. As Herbert Marcuse writes in The Aesthetic Dimension, “Art’s power lies in the estranging…images which make perceptible that which is not perceived in everyday life….” 15 By offering an alternative from a completely different realm, ‘authentic art,’ he argues, constitutes an indictment of the established reality and is thus revolutionary. “The more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change.” 16 For a confirmation of this, view the scene in the film “The Shawshank Redemption” when Tim Robbins locks the guard in the bathroom and puts on a recording of the extraordinarily beautiful duet from Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro,” ‘Su l’aria Che soave zeffiretto,’ which is broadcast over the loudspeaker outside. The extended moment is pure magic. Every prisoner in the courtyard stands still, absolutely transfixed, staring in the direction of the sound. “To this day, I don’t know what those two ladies were singing about,” Morgan Freeman says in voice over. “Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things best left unsaid.” THAT is the power of art, and that is the goal of abstraction.

I have written out these thoughts in order to better understand the aspects of abstraction – both formal and spiritual / emotional – that attract me so strongly and constitute the wellspring of my work. As importantly, I want to argue that abstraction is not a style, but, rather, an approach to making art; and that photographers have the same access to that approach as artists working in any other medium. We are as free to use light in the service of abstraction