Shape of Light – 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art, Tate Modern

Shape of Light

Antony Cairns, LDN5_051, 2017

This amazing exhibition takes as its starting point the fact that photography has for the past century existed alongside the fine arts, sometimes overlapping and sometimes clashing with their objectives and styles but usually remaining in the shadows of the showmanship of painting and printmaking.

It’s a great show because it takes photography seriously as a forger of ideas and concepts which were often taken up by painters and pushed on in new directions. Famously the Futurist photographer brothers Bragaglia blazed the trail of slow and fast shutter speed dynamic effects to capture time and motion within a still image, something which would be unthinkable (literally) without photographic devices. Their ideas were taken up by the painters in the group (Balla, Boccioni, Severini et al) and they were later discarded as lesser than fine in the usual way of arrogant painters. And of course their champion Marinetti was no different.

But this is actually good – it shows photography is fundamental to forging new concepts which emerge unexpectedly and naturally without the usual fanfare of puffed up painter genius. Don’t get me wrong, I love painting as well, but the connection between the two art forms is like brother and  sister – two equal and complementary but often competitive forces. And fundamentally different in many ways.

Some artists can co-exist and move smoothly between the two – Man Ray comes to mind, with his free-form photograms which required dexterity and imagination to achieve. And Brassai’s close-ups of graffitti chiselled into plaster walls are looking for similar aesthetic/cultural signs as Aaron Siskind’s abstracts of shadows on peeling paint. The deep metallic blacks only achieved by silver based paper, help to convey this visual dynamism in a powerful way.

Brassai, Man Ray, Aaron Siskind

Alfred Stieglitz was among the first to recognise an equivalence between art and photography and his series of skies makes this point – a photographic image can be equivalent to anything as well as the object it “depicts”. Art is bigger than the constructs of a mortal mind, even when the means of expression include the mechanical and the chemical. However, not everyone can shape light into somethng worth looking at – that requires creative skill.

Equivalents by Alfred Stieglitz

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