In ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag understands photography as a nostalgic medium that registers things that are on the process of disappearing. Fragmentary and sentimental, photographs create an ethical sensibility that, as she shows in the United States, pass from Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work and its attempt to use painterly composition and visual effects to depict the euphoric belief that stupendous America could only be apprehended in fragments (that is, in photos) to Diane Arbus and Robert Frank’s fetishistic sense of accumulation and moral disbelief. According to her, Stieglitz’s Whitmanesque optimism can only become Edward Steichen’s and Bill Brandt’s surrealism when confronted with the actualities of the new world. It is in that passage from the heroic to the uncanny that photography’s seemed to find its relevance as art.
Throughout twelve rooms in Tate Modern’ s ‘Shape of Light: 100 years of Photography and Abstract Art’ the subtleties of this kind of argument are simply ignored. Instead, curator Simon Baker insists, risking the visitor’s exhaustion, that artistic status can be achieved by emulating the visual appearance of pictorial Avant-garde and in doing so, he naturalises, firstly MoMA’s and nowadays, Tate Modern’s claims to establishing themselves as gatekeepers of Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries art historical and also commercial artistic canons. There is no other explanation for such a aerobic attempt to visually match abstract experimentation in photography with abstract painting at such a basic level.
If this construction of a history of abstract interpenetration of painting and photography barely makes sense when comparing Marta Hoepfner’s stiff photograms with Wassily Kandinsky’s musical dynamism, the situation in the room dedicated to Minimalism is preposterous. Bakers’ decision to place Carl Andre’s ‘Steel Zinc Plain’ (1969) mirroring Ed Ruscha’s photographic ‘Parking lots’ series (1967-2013) disables any proper reading of the latter’s work. The same could be said to the claim that James Welling’s gradients are minimalists instead of illusionistic. Particularly problematic is the room dedicated to ‘Drawing with light’ where Pollock’s controlled drip painting is equated to the chance of registering the movement of light through long exposure of the photographic device.
Having said this, the room that I found particularly problematic is the one dedicated to ‘Surface and Texture’ (Room 8) where Brassaï’s Graffiti (1950), Guy Bourdin’s Untitled (1950’s), Fredrick Sommer’s Found Painting (1949) and Aaron Siskind’s New York, Chicago, Kentuck and Los Angeles (1950) are put to dialogue with Nouveau Realiste Jacques Mahé de la Villegié’s Jazzmen (1961). At first glance, what de la Villegié and the photographic images hung in this room have in common is that they depict surfaces. The show, however, allows the viewer to conclude that abstraction and the photographic camera are almost incompatible. One could take issue with this shows claim that Brassaï’s body fragments, Laszló Moholy-Nagy’s ‘bird views’ and Stieglitz’s clouds are, actually, abstract. They are not. They only appear abstract when forced into a visual comparison with paintings that ‘illusionistically’ look the same. But Stieglitz’s clouds are not abstract but naturalistic. This is why, the curator’s attempt to force this analogies clashes against the reality that it seems to be very difficult for photographers to produce abstractions without laying objects onto photosensitive paper and exposing it to light as in Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, Man Ray’s rayograms and György Kepes’s chemigrams. It could even be said that the transition from one to the other might have something to do with the photographic medium reticence to generate abstractions with camera and only when the liquid and chemical aspects of photography are manipulated in a painterly way. Let’s bear in mind that a chemigram is made by manipulating photographic chemicals and light-sensitive paper by using materials as wax, polish and varnish to block chemical reactions. It could be argued that this method has more to do with painting than with photography but that takes us to the debate between the liquid aspects of photography before Kodak and Leica severed the intimate relation between the photographer and the chemical process and those times when Fox Talbott placed leaves on light-sensitive paper or Daguerre used chemicals to freeze the inverted moving image that came across the camera obscura. Instead of opening the debate, Tate Modern’s ‘Shape of Light: 100 years of Photography and Abstract Art’ insists until exhausting the viewer’s patience on visual similarities that are only convenient for the institution to keep defining what is art and what is not. J A T