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Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art

“Why should the inspiration that comes from an artist’s manipulation of the hairs of a brush be any different from that of the artist who bends at will the rays of light?” This quotation by modernist photographer Pierre Dubreuil introduces the visitors to a rather extraordinary exhibition, that spans from the early experiments of the 1910s to the digital innovations of the 21st century. Featuring over 350 works by more than 100 artists, the exhibition explores the history of abstract photography, and how it intertwined with abstract art, by showing, side-by-side, iconic paintings and sculptures, and the photographic creations they inspired. Here we encounter Alvin Langdon Coburn’s ‘vortographs’, i.e. photographs taken with an apparatus of mirrors, devised together with the vorticist poet Ezra Pound, and somewhat reminiscent of cubism; Marta Hoepffner’s Homage to Kandinsky, side-by-side with a Kandinsky painting; Mondrian hanging next to German Lorca’s Window, the perfect subject and angle to pay homage to Mondrian’s geometrical paintings; the “duo” Braque/Dubreuil, with a pinch of Picasso, etc. Copies of Camera Work in the vitrines make us appreciate the first modernist photograph: The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz, perhaps not abstract, but certainly innovative and experimental. We find the duo Edward Steichen/ Constantin Brancusi, where a photo of Brancusi’s Bird in Spacebecomes abstract photography and art in its own right. In the same room we can also admire Brancusi’s sculpture Maiastra. Attention is drawn to the sharp focus, that abstracts patterns and textures, but to the modern eye the images produced by film photography appear soft and dreamy, and the various degrees of sepia tones in the black and white prints, has a particular muted strength. But the artists in this exhibition experimented “bending the rays of light”, even without a camera. Photograms were created by placing objects onto the surface of light sensitive paper, and then exposing it to light. The name photogram was coined by László Moholy-Nagy who experimented widely with this type of images. Surrealist Man Ray was fascinated by the process itself, placing objects in the dark, because of its automatic and dreamlike quality. He called his photograms “rayographs”. And Christian Schad called his… “schadographs”. Then there were “chemigrams”, invented by Pierre Cordier in the 1950s, where photographic chemicals were manipulated to paint pictures. Stark black and white abstracts/abstractions could also be created by photographing objects placed on a light box, as we see in the experiments by Nathan Lerner. Forms, textures, zoomed-in details, unusual angles, geometrical or organic lines, pendulums and moving sources of light, can all create abstract photography, and the images formed often echo the design taste of the time, as it is particularly obvious in the room dedicated to op art. Human bodies that look like landscapes, landscapes that look like human bodies; movement, structure, depth, dreaminess, harshness, analogue photographers could convey all of this in their work. Although there are a few examples of what we lazily tend to call abstract photography today, i.e. macros of fibres, or record grooves, the rest of the (mainly) black and white works are a kaleidoscopic explosion of creativity and imagination. So, how does modern digital abstract photography compare? The exhibition ends with a series of new works by contemporary artists, Antony Cairns, Maya Rochat and Daisuke Yokota. Interesting, especially the 45 e-ink screens. Yet one (or maybe just me) wonders if something has been lost along the way, and if we could benefit from dancing in the darkroom from time to time.

First published on the East Finchley Open Artists June 2018 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

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