Photography’s uncanny ability to represent the world had such a profound impact on society in the early 20th century that its role in non-representative art has been overlooked. “Shape of Light”, Tate Modern’s new exhibition, demonstrates photography’s contribution to abstraction and its close relationship with painting, often considered to have developed on a separate course.
In the 1910s photography was still young and advancing rapidly with technology. Photographs were becoming relatively easy and cheap to reproduce, giving them many commercial and scientific uses that other art forms lacked. Painting, on the other hand, was older than civilisation itself and required reimagining completely in response to the new technological age. This great aesthetic upheaval was modernism, with its ground-breaking rejection of the representative and embrace of the abstract.
But photographers also caught the revolutionary zeal, actively engaging in cubism, constructivism, surrealism and other modernist movements more readily associated with painting. By experimenting with close-ups, focus, aerial shots, mirrors, long exposures, or even dispensing with the camera altogether for the raw materials of the darkroom, they could find the abstract in the everyday, or create something altogether new.
Man Ray, who was both photographer and painter, placed objects directly onto photosensitive paper, leaving mysterious impressions that he called “rayographs”. The American surrealist wrote in 1921 that he was “trying to do with photography what painters were doing, but with light and chemicals instead of pigment, and without the optical help of the camera”.
For constructivists such as Alexander Rodchenko and László Moholy-Nagy, the camera was the “very medium of modernity”. Rodchenko switched to photography exclusively in 1921, declaring painting “dead”. Born of technology and offering new perspectival possibilties, the camera embodied the utopian energy of the times in the wake of the Russian revolution. The latest models like the Ica were small and portable and could be held up to the eye to capture the modern city from new and exhilarating angles: from the top of a radio mast or between the girders of a bridge. Far from merely representing the world, photography offered, like all art forms, new ways of imagining it.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, “Vortograph” (1917)
Alvin Langdon Coburn, an American photographer, used three rectangular mirrors as a prism to produce the fractured geometry of this image. Having made his name taking portraits of great men such as the French sculptor Auguste Rodin and the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Coburn was searching for a new visual language when Ezra Pound, the American poet, introduced him to vorticism, a kind of British cubism, in London in 1916. This short-lived movement, which reflected the dynamism of the modern age with abstraction and jagged lines, inspired Coburn to create a series of kaleidoscopic “vortographs” which are among the first non-representational photographs ever made.
Imogen Cunningham, “Triangles” (1928)
With Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham belonged to a group of San Francisco photographers who promoted a new modernist aesthetic based on precise exposures of the natural world. Triangles finds her in a playful mood, close-cropping the female form into an abstract composition of shape and shadow. Cunningham’s reduction of the nude, that icon of western art, to an inanimate object represented a challenge to the “pictorial” style of photography – think highly staged, emotive, soft-focus portraits – that had dominated the early part of the century.
Otto Steinert, “Luminogram II” (1952)
German avant-garde photographer Otto Steinert created his “luminograms” by holding up his camera to street lights or headlights for extended exposure times (reproduced here in negative print). Like photos of sparklers on bonfire night, they remind us of photography’s literal meaning of “light-writing”. Steinert believed that rather than representing reality, photography should be an autonomous and experimental art form that “arises in the darkroom”. Although he made his name in the decade that Jackson Pollock popularised abstract expressionism in painting, Steinert saw photography as an entirely independent medium, with light its sovereign raw material.
Man Ray, “Unconcerned Photograph” (1959)
Man Ray had been a leading (and a rare American) figure in the surrealist and Dada movements in the 1920s and 30s, finding fame with his poetic photograms or “rayographs” as well as his paintings. Decades later, when invited to contribute work to a major retrospective on abstract art at Moma, he submitted a new series of “Unconcerned Photographs”, which he created by swinging his Polaroid around his Paris studio and taking pictures seemingly at random. In embracing the element of chance he was staying true to his surrealist roots while issuing a carefree rebuke to the notion of his own artistic canonisation.
Edward Ruscha, “Gilmore Drive-In Theater – 6201 W. Third St.” (1967)
The American pop artist Ed Ruscha may have had in mind the photographs László Moholy-Nagy took from Berlin’s radio tower in 1928-30 when he embarked on the series Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles in 1967. As in Moholy-Nagy’s images, installations on the ground assume abstract shapes when viewed from the air. Ruscha’s photographs, like his paintings, challenged viewers to look with fresh eyes at the apparently mundane infrastructure of post-war America. He took the pictures on a Sunday morning when the car parks were empty.
Barbara Kasten, “Photogenic Painting, Untitled 74/13” (1974)
Barbara Kasten, who considers herself primarily a painter, created her Photogenic Paintings by arranging textiles and objects on photosensitive paper to create an impression of texture and volume that, as the title suggests, is more akin to painting than photography. Her use of cyanotype recalls early cameraless photography, such as Anna Atkins’ photograms of algae from 1843. At the same time, her blending of photography and painting anticipated an age in which, thanks to digital technology, the boundary between the two media has become forever blurred.
Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art Tate Modern, May 2nd – October 14th