Abstraction and Photography

The Story of It counterchange faces, Michael Betancourt (1994)

An “abstract photograph”? Such a thing is either impossible or absurd, an attempt to cover-up for technical failings, poor optical focus; incompetence. A photograph cannot be abstract because then it would cease to be a photograph—those traces left by light passing through the optics of a camera that form an image. This restriction is what abstract photography pioneer, photographer Franz Roh, recognized more than fifty years ago:

Likenesses, actual landscapes and original reportage are [the opponents of abstract photography] allege the sole themes with which a photograph ought to concern itself. As soon as it becomes “non-representational,” like modern painting or graphic art, it is straying along an alien path, degenerating into mere imitation of another form or art and simultaneously losing the real charms of its special technique.

The restriction to only those images created as an ontological trace left by the passage of light through optics seems reasonable and poses a definition for photographs that intuitively feels right, until we begin looking at the marginalia it creates: what about “pin hole” photography, where there are no optics, only a minute hole poked in a piece of foil or cardboard? These images have a degree of focus, are immediately recognizable as photographs, yet they are made without the benefit of a lens—there are no actual optics involved—yet the results are still a photograph, however fuzzy and out-of-focus the result may be. But if the need for optics is purely optional, then the assumption of the realism those optics so often produce is also open to question, and the “abstract photograph” returns quite insistently as something requiring consideration.

At the same time, other limits and exclusions, such as the demand for specific photo-chemical emulsions and darkroom processing, would necessarily exclude all forms of electronic imaging, something that does not feel right when considering how people speak of their cellphone camera and its images—as photographs. To restrict photography to only chemical processes—the photosensitive salts that respond to light and create the traditional photography of the darkroom—means that all those images involving electronics cannot be photographs; not just the digital image, but the whole history of video and television as well.

This denial is absurd. Photography no longer requires chemical traces, yet we still treat these electronic images as belonging to the same realm as the silver halide image. Without this limitation, the prospect of abstraction in photography not only seems plausible, but unavoidable. The artificial and fluid manipulation of electronic imaging has always been closer to the abstract than to realism, but only because it is so much more difficult to manipulate and plastically deform the silver-halide image than images made from pixels. But the difficulty of manipulation and abstraction is not the same as its impossibility: what too of those photographic images made in the darkroom that involve contact printing? What about the cyanotypes and non-silver processes, not to mention the photogram, luminogram, scannergram, and radiograph? All those images made by physical objects that become the literal, physical template for the picture that results—an immediate correspondence, like a footprint left on the beach—are these photographs to be denied, even though that is clearly what they are and how they are identified? To embrace the full range of photographic process is to lose the sense of restriction that fixes the idea of photography as an image of reality stopped in place and time. Questions of abstraction become plausible and inevitable.

Instaglitch, Michael Betancourt (2017)

Marginalia are a way to consider these questions about the nature of the photograph. Familiar, typical images actually tell us little; it is only at the edges where things happen. There is little to say about what photographs are from the typical snapshots produced easily and then immediately forgotten, saved in a shoebox somewhere simply because there is no doubt about their status as photographs. Much can be said about memory, time passed and recalled; they allow their viewers to return a past moment to immediacy, but all these things depend on their realism. The photograph appears to be an inscription of the natural world apparent to our senses, one whose recalling into immediacy is more a matter of what the image shows—yet what is at stake with abstract photography is what the image is.

But this question about being is the one photographers generally ignore, concerned with the mechanics of the machine they operate, considering how to create their images, found like the detritus of reality and recorded for later presentation. Theorizing the perfect moment for this imaging brings their search for ‘the real’ into focus as an attentive flâneurism that imposes distance between viewer and the world in an attempt to stitch the two ever-more tightly together. Abstraction, real abstraction, divorced from this recording of actuality and its derivative assumptions about naturalism and a material order of sight, reveals the claim to capture reality as a lie.

Abstraction is forbidden, not because it is impossible, but because photography forced painting to turn inwards, to emphasize subjective experience over the objective documenting of a reality whose depiction the photograph automated. For photography to turn to abstraction is the original violation, a refusal of its role as reporter of reality. The photograph has served to demarcate the actual against the fantasies and subjectivities of metaphysical, esoteric knowledge. This role is the secret truth of the “spirit photograph” whose translucent figures are nothing more than a double exposure or other darkroom trickery, facilitated and made simple by the digital darkroom and computer. It is the certainty that “Nessie” is a three-inch tall plastic toy bobbing in the water and the Cottingley Fairies are paper dolls. These fakes are not abstraction, but the epistolary of realism: their unmasking, in being false, asserts and reveals a deeper truth, claiming the photograph does not actually lie, it is only the humans who do not see clearly enough. The issue of their depiction is not the fabrication of reality. Their discovery as fakes allows and affirms a restoration of ‘the real’ through the negation of their “proof.” What these images show or don’t show is just a mundane product of human failings, not the machine’s operation—a misfunction that only fools credulous viewers. Once unmasked, the audience can congratulate themselves on their certainty about the reality shown (but hidden).

Abstract photographs undo any certainty about reality; there is nothing to return to, nothing to unmask. The abstract photograph is itself, not a depiction resembling something in the world. Those contents its audience might think they recognize becomes the same uncertain visualization that metamorphic images and optical illusions pose: while there is clearly an image, what it shows is open to discussion, moving within boundaries fixed in such a way that the images seen are not the image shown. Those recognitions of the depicted reality in a photograph are certain and immobile, but once the ambivalence of the abstract is allowed inside the edifice of photography, that technological view of the world must necessarily expand—but it is an expansion that undoes its authoritative claims on reality. To recognize a photograph, any photograph, as composed from a network of grains or pixels whose joining together creates the realistic image its audience sees, is to return that image to the realm of abstraction in a denial of the machine’s autonomy as depictor. The machine that creates the image enters a powerful decline with the expansion of address created by embracing the abstract, as the focus in conception of photography shifts from the autonomous device to the mind that sees and understands.

These difficulties of the still photograph are expanded upon by the motion picture, realism elevated to an axiomatic status by the dominant theories of cinema—theories which cannot tell the difference between fiction and documentary film and seek to support their restrictive understanding of photography simply by ignoring all those works that challenge their beliefs. Digital cinema, commencing in the 1990s, and accelerating throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century, brings all the problems posed by abstraction into the foreground as the concerns with photography metastasize into a terminal crisis. The digital image unmasks the tenuous relationship of reality to photograph through its obvious ease of manipulation and fluid transformation between cartoonish imagery and highly detailed realism. The difference between computer graphics and digital photography is an issue of nomenclature rather than technology: the image itself is the same whatever name it has. A capacity for abstraction has always been immanent in digital technology, whose basis in the regular grid of illuminated squares on-screen has a close affinity to the highly reductive geometries of art posed earlier in painting by De Stijl, Suprematism, and Constructivism.

Composition in Color A (rotated right), Piet Mondrian

The question of abstract photography is the same problem posed by the digital; it brings entire realms of artificial and unreal images generated and created through machines into the consideration of what defines the photograph, an expansion whose operative impact is definitive. The realism of photos is nothing more than an artifice, a carefully produced appearance made through a precisely controlled mechanism. All those values which we associate with the photograph—documentation, reality, certainty—are simply functions of its autonomous operation and the historical difficulties with creating abstract images using this machine designed for realism. To apprehend the abstract photograph then is to have cultural uses laid bare in a return to zero. It is ideology that defines photography as real, not the photograph. And this is the real danger of abstraction, the suggestion that there is more to see than meets the eyes, that vision is limited and often mistaken, needing correctives no optician can prescribe. The regulation of sight is the definition of reality; the acceptance or invalidation of abstraction serves to make certain orderings acceptable and others forbidden.