Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Thoughts on Photographic Abstraction

In the past year or so, abstraction in contemporary photography has become an increasingly hot topic (I'll be reviewing yet another show of abstract work later today). And yet, so far, I haven't been able to find a simple, all-encompassing framework for understanding how it all fits together; the word "abstract" gets thrown around in so many different ways and contexts that it's easy to lose sight of its actual meaning. The big show at Aperture, the various smaller shows (Michael Mazzeo, Laurence Miller, MCNY etc.), and the recent article by Matthew Witkovsky in Artforum have all added to the discussion, but have failed in my mind to provide a clarifying context (historical or otherwise) for the multiplicity of what is occurring.

My brain works in a relatively structured and analytical way. The ugly PowerPoint diagram below started out as a quick list of the various kinds of photographic abstraction that are being employed, and later evolved into some rough groupings of like approaches.

I'd like to think this diagram is pretty self-explanatory, but let me add a few comments and nuances:

  • Sometimes we use the word "abstract" to identify a challenging conceptual idea, a recontextualization of a known subject, or an obscure, indefinite, or sometimes incomprehensible meaning. This type of abstraction/disconnection is all captured in the box on the far left.
  • "Abstraction" that is the result of the careful paring down of the visual system into fragments and patterns of line, form, color and shape is what I refer to in the second box. This can be accomplished with "captured" imagery from life or "constructed" imagery (analog or digital). Sometimes this form of abstraction contains a hint of narrative, sometimes not. Brandt's nudes, Siskind's walls, Eggleston's color vignettes, they all fit here; categories like Modernist abstraction, urban abstraction, natural abstraction or abstracted landscape all go here as well.
  • The third box represents a strain of abstraction that is wholly interested in the technical subtleties of visual perception, and how the camera's eye "sees" differently than the human eye does. This includes elements of 2D/3D distortion, surface flattening, color theory, tilt-shift, and optical illusions, and can again be built from recognizable objects or non-representational content. While one might consider there to be some overlap with the previous category (and there is, it's not as cut and dried as anyone would like), I think this category is defined mostly by mindset and artistic objective. Much of photoconceptualism that is "abstract" fits in this box.
  • The final group consists of those images centered entirely on the process of creating the art object, with no regard for representation. This can be done with a camera or without, in a darkroom or on a computer, using a highly controlled or largely chance-driven approach. Technical details, physical surface treatments, chemical combinations, and Photoshop tricks can and do all come into play. We often see connections to painting in these works, as they are derived from the artist's mind and craft, not captured from life outside in the traditional photographic manner.
  • There is no temporal progression here. All of these modes of abstraction are being pursued simultaneously at this point.

While this little diagram is obviously reductive and perhaps overly simplistic, it has at least helped to organize the muddle of photographic abstraction that has been cluttering up my head. If there are ways to improve it or whole categories I have missed, please do add them in the comments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's so refreshing to read this entry, and especially your recent "Is Anyone Trying to Lead the Conversation?"

The reviews are helpful, but now you're really starting to delve into the good stuff! Be bold, and keep up the good work.