In-Depth: How Abstractionism Redefined the Meaning of Art in Photography


The concept of abstract photography profoundly connects with the evolution of art. To understand this relationship, we need to talk about the different faces that crossed the medium over the past centuries and when the advent of photography took place. Considering that the process was invented and studied in a science laboratory, this gives a much-needed perspective into the oldest controversy argued among critics:

Can photography be considered art?

Nowadays, we have broadened the definition and many forms of photography are considered art. Even though it wasn't always like that, it is still a very personal point of view for each photographer. Now, let's take a couple of steps back and see this dilemma thoughtfully.

A couple of centuries ago, in the very beginning of photography, the issue was fixing light in a negative and then on to paper. The tireless research of Niépce, who had his first breakthrough in 1816, and later on with L.J.M. Daguerre in the 1830s, made photography a reality. Literally meaning 'to paint with light', the photographic process was introduced to the public via the publication on the French Academy of Science. We began to understand why photography was not treated as an art form back in the 1900s.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Notre-Dame von der Pont des Tournelles, between 1838 and 1839 Camera Exhibit in the Musée Nicéphore Niépce

At First: The Meaning of Light

The medium gained fast fame, arousing public amazement. The reaction to the tool itself was astonishing: finally, a way to faithfully record an image! Photography was used mainly to record the world as it looked while taking roots in society, serving our memories, recording our life events, and eventually becoming an integral part of us. The objectiveness of the recording of a photo (a strongly debated issue as well: is it objective?) was and, still is, often compared with paintings. How many times, we stumble across a work of art so realistic that we say: "It looks like a photo!" and vice versa?

From this intersection of the two art forms, the evolution toward to something else for photography was inevitable. Noticeably, a peak for abstract photography in art history was during the beginning of the last century. Around the early 1900s, as a result of the historical events taking place, the visual artists saw an inevitable transformation. The horrors of WWI and WWII disrupted the sensitive souls of many. Those who were involved firsthand in battles were shocked and scarred by the aftermath of war.

We often see in history that where there is chaos, art flourishes. The world as they used to know it, wasn't making much sense. Existential questions were asked throughout different forms of expression. That's where fertile soil was ready to sprout for movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and the school of Bauhaus. Thanks to the experimental and the avant-garde, artists started to explore. Throughout their photographic practice, they used the medium to go beyond what was purely in front of them and compose surreal and abstract works.

László Moholy-Nagy, Fotogramm, 1925 Gelatin silver print László Moholy-Nagy From the Radio Tower, Berlin 1928, printed ca. 1940 Gelatin silver print - Bauhaus, Dessau, 1993

Abstractionism to Understand Humanity and Society

One of the most wildly known artists of the time was Man Ray and his iconic works, Rayograms. The images without a camera are structured: by placing objects directly on a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposing it to light. Although, he wasn't the sole user of the technique. Hungarian photographer, László Moholy-Nagy, a teacher at the Bauhaus between 1923 and 1928, used the photograms extensively in his work. He was known for supporting the idea that "..the camera could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not."

Surrealism turned out to be a perfect place for artists to produce and expand the medium of photography. Abstraction meant exploring and working with light, composition, and with purpose all at the same time. Such was the work of Florence Henri and Grete Stern. Ms. Henri's work in the words of László Moholy-Nagy:

"With Florence Henri's photos, photographic practice enters a new phase—the scope of which would have been unimaginable before today. Above and beyond the precise and exact documentary composition of these highly defined photos, research into the effects of light is tackled not only through abstract photograms, but also in photos of real-life subjects..." —László Moholy-Nagy

While Henri's work was elevating the medium, Grete Stern's use of photography was elevating the condition of women.

More specifically, her work for the Argentinian magazine Idilio (between the 1940s and 1950s), focused on photo collage and the interpretation of readers' dreams. Women submitted their dreams and a psychologist would interpret the meaning while Ms. Stern would illustrate the interpretation. Her marvelous creation was an investigation and analysis of the condition of women in Argentina and a challenge at the status quo. Along with her esteemed colleague Ellen Auerbach, they co-founded the advertising agency and photography team, ringl+pit. At the beginning of 1930, they were the identification of the modern woman. Socially evolved, they and their avant-garde work embodied the spirit of the '30s -- women who were starting to liberate themselves from the tedious condition of the past, were able to work, emancipated, and were subverting the conformity of female figures.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalents 1925; Grete Stern: Self-portrait, 1943. Gelatin silver print, printed 1958, Estate of Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires

What is Abstraction Today?

A few years later, in 1951, an exhibit at the MoMa by the acclaimed curator and master of photography Edward Steichen, titled "Abstraction in Photography," takes place in New York. The works shown in this exhibit came from 75 photographers. The works in general, "...ranged from the scientific document to contrived arrangements and from mechanical pattern to organic design."

Abstract photography expands between technical experimentation and the dislocation of his subject to a nonformal recognition. The mere representation of your subject matter is disrupted and reaches a new meaning.

What is abstract is also found in our natural environment. Patterns, colors, and conceptual composition are among the works presented. That marks an important consideration when talking about abstract photography. The final image is a body of a unanimous message. The idea, the execution, and the technique are one in all, which then the concept elevates to art. There is deep conceptual research between your elements composed and the meaning of the abstraction per se. We detach from the mere objects and their function, manipulating backward its original elements: lights, shadows, and shapes to extract ourselves from the form.

Tina Modotti, Stairs, Mexico City,1924–26 Gelatin silver print present in 1951, at the exhibit at MoMa.

Nowadays, the Lomography community is certainly exploring further the meaning and possibilities of abstract photography -- expanding the ideas behind it.

If at the beginning of the last century, artists dissociated from conventional forms and meaning, drawn by the discomfort brought by a disrupted society... today, abstraction comes more as a form of experimentation. Many rediscovered the pleasures of film photography. In this high and fast-paced reality in the digital age, we reconnected with a process that forcibly gets us to slow down. That's when the intersection between life, society, and artistic practice, is not always clear at first. But taking a step back, we can start to put together the pieces that uncover the intentions even when they don't seem obvious.

Thanks to the different techniques used such as light painting, double exposures, splitters, and so on... The world of Lomography is full of possibilities to dive into the meaning of abstraction.

Credits: slo, superlighter, nineacre, maximum_b, legacy, marjanbuning, renenob, whisk82 & lighthouseblues

written by eparrino on 2021-12-04 #culture


  1. nicktaurojr
    nicktaurojr ·

    Great article!!

  2. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    Thank You :)

  3. guypinhas
    guypinhas ·

    A bit late to the party but very cool article!

  4. reggiegilliam
    reggiegilliam ·

    Thanks for this article; very interesting. For me, abstraction has always been art. But I also know a few people who don't think so. And it's okay because, for everyone, art is something different. You'll never find something, which all people will like, or hate; there will always be different opinions and, of course, critique. Some time ago, I had to write a paper on art and on art critique. So I decided to write about photography. Before it, I looked for some ideas and found this page with interesting writing examples, which helped me to come up with even more writing ideas, but after all, I decided to write about photography. That is something familiar and interesting to me, so I recieved pleasure working on such a task.

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