sea abstract #7

As a concept, abstract photography is often seen as  a contradiction in terms. Photographs, after all, always represent some trace of physical reality, even if it is not immediately recognizable. The medium's inherent knack for representation paradoxically makes it an ideal instrument for probing and challenging the language of abstraction.

Consequently, abstraction has never been anything like orthodoxy in photography. It’s always been peripheral to the medium and  dropped in and out of vogue and critical prominence.

Abstraction in  photography generally refers  to  the Abstract Expressionist style and high seriousness of the non-representational photographic  work from the 1950's by Aaron Siskind, Minor White and others (including Harold Edgerton, Stan Brakhage, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy  and Gyorgy Kepes).  

Is there a movement of contemporary abstraction in todays art photography? Art photography has been  dominated by a factual, relatively unemotional work: water towers, suburban developments, and austere portraits ruled within the prevalent movements of New Topographics and the Dusseldorf School of photography.

Is there a  movement of non representational  photography that makes make visible the tension between abstraction and camera representation,  and which has it  roots in  post-modernism? What is over, after postmodernism, is the narrow view of photography — the idea that the camera is a recording device, not a creative tool, and that its product is strictly representational — not manipulated, not fabricated, not abstract.

interpreting a theme

I'm finding this project hard. It's not coming off very well. Things are not coming together.  Whatever I try doesn't really work or fall into place. The improvisation  on a theme is  off key.  I'm just going to have to practice more. Thank heavens for digital technology. It allows me afford to make mistakes.

Music is a good way to understand the photographic process.  So we have composition, tonality improvisation, motion, rhythm, interpretation as well as  light and colour.

This places an emphasis on the interpretation of a score or theme as distinct from originality,  genius and masterworks  of the modernist tradition that placed  on photography as an artistic medium, which has specific properties and representational problematics. Once art was liberated from representation (realism) it had to justify its existence as the search for its own essence.

Formalist modernism held that  each art medium must determine, through rigorous self-examination of its own operations and effects, those specific qualities unique to itself. Hence the modernist reading of an image that rejects context and meaning and places an  emphasis on purity, the self-sufficiency of the photograph,  and photography's inherent  nature as a medium. We end up with disembodied self-closure of pure visuality.

 Improvisation not coming together brings the idea of formless into play---the improvisation goes no where. It just winds down and becomes disorder.

Photographic Abstractions: an exhibition

I have come across a group exhibiton of abstract photography in Australia  curated by Stella Loftus-Hills and Stephen Zagala at the Monash Art Gallery in Melbourne in 2012. It was entitled Photographic Abstractions,  and  it involved  the work of 33 Australian photographers comprising over 200 photographs. 

These range  from modernist geometric abstraction and the psychedelic experiments and conceptual projects of the 1970s, through to recent explorations of pixelated pictorial space The majority of works in the exhibition are held in the Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection. There is little text  and no catalogue online. 

Some of the images of the exhibition can be seen on this post by Marcus Bunyan at Art Blart. He draws attention to the lack of a text that places the work in a socio-cultural context. All that is offered, he says,  are five short paragraphs on a wall as you enter the space.  Bunyan precises these thus: 

*Photographic language engages the senses and challenges the way we "look" at the world; 

*Through the use of cropping and obscure angles the familiar is made unfamiliar;

*Colour, shape and form (geometric patterns) are important;

*Some artists eliminate the camera altogether through photograms, scanner, collage;

*Use of multiple exposures, distortion, mirroring;

*By drilling down into the substances and processes of photography  we can reflect on the very nature of photography itself; 

*Exploring geometry and patterns found in nature and the built environment or alluding to more intangle themes such as time, mortality and spirituality. 

Bunyan says that there was no serious theoretical inquiry or educational component offered to the viewer  by the curators, even though Stephen Zagala,  a Curator at the Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, is a writer with training in art history, philosophy and anthropology. 

The artists are: Andrew Browne, John Cato, Jo Daniell, John Delacour, Peter Elliston, Joyce Evans, Chantel Faust, Susan Fereday, Anthony Figallo, George Gittoes, John Gollings, Graeme Hare, Melinda Harper, Paul Knight, Peter Lambropoulos, Bruno Leti, Anne MacDonald, David Moore, Grant Mudford, Harry Nankin, Ewa Narkiewicz, John Nixon, Rose Nolan, Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski, Robert Owen, Wes Placek, Susan Purdy, Scott Redford, Jacky Redgate, Wolfgang Sievers, David Stephenson, Mark Strizic and Rick Wood.

An Australian abstract tradition?

In his A Secret History of Australian Art (2002) Rex Butler says that no account of abstract painting in Australia has yet been attempted. He says:

the moment for  the acutalizationj of this history has always been forestalled or disavowed. The pioneering constructivists (Balson Crowley, Hinder) were at the time ignored ... the so-called father of Australiaan art history Bernard Smith argued in the first edition of Australian painting that a 'truly non-figurative constructive tradition cannot be said to hacve existed prior to 1965'. The well-known and much discussed 'The Field' exhibition was largely passed over at the time, and was soon to be  superseded  by the conceptual art and happenings of the 1970s and the pop-based and neo-expressionist styles of the 1980s.

Butler adds that even today  a generation of museum curators abd critics remain largely unaware of the abstract tradition in Australia, preferring to see the work of the local practitioners in terms of more recent concerns or as deriving from overseas.

We do have the 1998 Geometric Painting in Australia 1941-1997 shown at the University Art Museum, University of Queensland, Brisbane. This exhibiton was premised on the curator's exclusion of paintings that derive their inspiration not from the medium of painting, but from something external to it. David Pestorious, the curator,  limited the exhibition to paintings that were about the materials of painting itself---colour, shape, form--- and it was concerned to explore the internal development of these cut off from all outside influences.

It was an attempt by Australian modernists to define painting's own specificity by excluding all that was not proper to the medium. This is about flatness, purity and aesthetic autonomy.  

revisiting modernism

Ian North begins his talk entitled Spooked! Art Museums, Photography and the Problem of the Real given to the Centre of Contemporary Photography, Melbourne in 2003  by dividing photography into two photographic traditions.

He calls these Reflexive photography or art photography, which has its roots in the formalist photography of the 1970s to the various modes of expression today; and Critical photography, which refers to conceptual photography of the 1970s through postmodernism in the 1980s to present today practices that consciously manifest a critical or ideological edge.

North includes in  the reflexive or art photography tradition both  the American  new colour photography of the 1970s and the New Topographics of Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.  

He adds that the two modes tend to blur in the 1990s  with the curators in the art galleries preferring the critical tradition. His  argument is   that the blurring and cross overs directly challenges the idea of two  photographic traditions. 

What is surprising is that North doesn't relate  this argument to the art debates in Australia over modernism and American formalism. Or to the Antipodeans  defence of the Melbourne figurative tradition against  both American abstract art (abstract expressionism and  geometric abstraction),  and the Sydney based abstract painters that include Ralph Balson Grace, Crowley Robert Klippel, John Olsen, John Passmore, William Rose and Eric Smith. So we don't get any sense of what Australian modernism was. 

 Nor does he mention the abstract or non-representational art  produced by  influx of émigré artists from Europe in the 1950s in Adelaide,  such as Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz  who produced a series of abstracts based on the Australian landscape. We have no sense of  the tradition of Australian abstract modernism, or its different currents.    

Shouldn't art photography in Australia be related to the  modernist art tradition (painting); or even to  the debates around  the Australian preoccupation with nation and national identity and those around the  provincialism problem---the belief that it was Australia's distanxce from, and relationship to, overseas cultures that made us unoriginal, derivative and second hand?

This is significant becauseat the time  Australian's felt that we could only express ourselves through the inherited forms and categories of others, and that our culture was merely the recapitaulization of something that had been done elsewhere. These debates and concerns are an integral part of our visual culture.  

torn halves

Abstraction in photography had its roots in modernism. We can think of László Moholgy-Nagy,  Aaron SiskindMan Ray, Paul Outerbridge, Barbara Kasten  amongst others.

Clement Greenberg championed abstraction in painting, condemned the literal in painting and held that abstraction was central to the goal of all modernist artists, to rid art of all that was extraneous to it. To achieve autonomy, painting has hadto divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture, and to exclude the representational or literary.

However, he welcomed the literal in photography.  In his essay 'Four Photographers' he says:

The art in photography is literary art before it is anything else: its triumphs and monuments are historical, antecdotal, reportorial onservsational before they are purely pictorial...The photograph has a story to tell if it is to work as art.

In Greenberg's view the medium of photography was transparent and  documentary. The inference is that photography was not a part of abstract modernist movement. Photography was seen to be elbowing into the  modernist art context of abstract expressionism. 

Today, ironically, it is photography's exploration of the literary, or interpretating literary themes, (eg. Jeff Wall) that is celebrated by an art institutionthat links it to earlier developments in painting. Recent large scale museum photography---Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall, and Thomas Demand--- fits tightly into the history of painting and the pictorial tradition. 

abstract photography: intoduction

Abstract photography is about using a camera not to represent something but to create a feeling, form  or sensation through the use of shape, color, texture, light and shadow. It challenges the  popular view of photography as an objective image of reality by reasserting its constructed nature.

Non-representational photography lives in the contested middle ground between material reality and photographic illusion or fiction.   It rejects photography's documentary dimension in favor of other possibilities, somewhere between painting and sculpture, that include the manipulation of process and printing.

I decided to work on a  little project --a book of sea abstractions.