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A brief introduction to abstraction in twentieth century photography featuring work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

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  1. 1. A Level Photography ABSTRACTION
  2. 2. What is abstraction? Abstract art, like photography itself, is largely a twentieth century phenomenon. In fact, one of the reasons why artists began to experiment with abstraction is because they felt that photographs could do the job of representing the world much better than a painter. This painting by Picasso is obviously a landscape. We can see the shapes of houses and walls. But Picasso has distorted reality . The perspective is strange, almost as if he had moved around and recorded different views of the same scene in one picture. By about 1910, artists like Picasso began to look at the world in new ways, frustrated by the artistic rules that had existed in Europe since the Renaissance. They looked to non-western art and other art forms like music for their inspiration.
  3. 3. The Bauhaus This image, by the photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy shows the influence of abstraction. We can see what the photographer is looking at – a column of balconies jutting out from the side of a building with a person at the top looking down. However, the unusual angle , emphasis on line and form and interest in the patterns created by the architectural elements, reveals the photographer’s fascination with the abstract qualities of the scene. Moholy-Nagy worked at The Bauhaus , a radical college of art and design in Germany, which taught its students that the worlds of the artist and the designer should combine to create a new kind of modern art. Moholy-Nagy - Bauhaus Balconies , 1927
  4. 4. A new way of seeing <ul><li>Some early photographers made their images look a lot like paintings. Perhaps they felt that they would be taken more seriously. Some people felt that photography wasn’t a real art form. Eventually, photographers gained the confidence to experiment, just like other modern artists. They realised that the camera, rather than just being good at making copies of reality, was a fantastic tool for seeing the world in a new way. </li></ul>Gertrude Kasebier - The Manger , 1899 platinum print, 31.8 x 25.4 cm (12 1/2 x 10 in.) Frederick Sommer - Virgin and Child, St. Anne and the infant St. John 1966
  5. 5. Living in the city The camera was a fantastic tool for capturing the experience of living in the modern city. As smaller, more lightweight cameras became available, photographers could roam the city streets, searching for unusual views , getting accustomed to the way the world looked through the viewfinder . Andre Kertesz - People and Shadows , 1928 Here, the high viewpoint and long shadows renders this group of people and animals as an almost abstract arrangement of forms. An image can have abstract properties even though its subject is recognisable. Notice how Kertesz has framed the figures in three distinct groups and retained an empty space at the top of the image. What appears to be casual is, in fact, carefully composed.
  6. 6. Camera angle Moholy-Nagy - Street paving , 1929 Leonard Freed - New York City 1956 Looking down… Looking up…
  7. 7. Light Jaromir Funke Abstract Photo 1928-9 Photography means “drawing with light”. This image exploits light’s ability to dissolve forms in a dynamic play of shadows and reflections . The original motif (subject) is no longer recognisable, hence the title of the photograph.
  8. 8. Shutter speed Harry Callahan - Chicago , 1946 This experimental photograph was created by leaving the camera shutter open for an unusually long period whilst moving the camera. Single points of light are transformed into lines and squiggles. The effect is rather like drawing with light.
  9. 9. The Photogram <ul><li>You don’t always need a camera (or indeed a negative) to create a photograph. Sometimes called Photograms or Rayographs , these images are created by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing the arrangement to light in the darkroom. Depending on the relative opacity of the objects, and the degree to which they are moved around during exposure, a variety of interesting effects can be achieved. </li></ul>Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - Photogram , 1926 Man Ray - Rayograph Susan Dirges -   Chladni figure , 1985
  10. 10. Still life The still life has provided photographers with a rich source of abstract imagery. After all, inanimate objects can be more easily manipulated than a moving target! Florence Henri - Still Life Composition No.10 , 1928 Irving Penn - Street Findings , NY 1999
  11. 11. The Art of Noise Music is the only truly abstract art form. Visual artists, including photographers, have long been fascinated by the challenge this presents. How might a painting or a photograph aspire to be like music in the way that it affects the viewer? Arturo & Anton Giulio Bragaglia - Alchimia musicale, 1932 The Italian Futurists were fascinated by the multi- sensory experience of modern life and sought to capture this in their images. Here, the Bragaglia brothers have chosen to leave the shutter open in order to record the dynamic movements of a cello player.
  12. 12. In Focus: Aaron Siskind <ul><li>Aaron Siskind began as a documentary photographer. His later work is more abstract and reflects his interest in abstract expressionist painting. In 1951, at the invitation of Harry Callahan, Siskind joined the faculty of the Institute of Design in Chicago. He was Professor of Photography until 1959, when he became Director of the Photographic Department. </li></ul>Jerome, Arizona , 1949 Gelatin silver print 13 1/2 x 9 7/8 in. Terrors and Pleasures of Levitation , No. 37, 1953
  13. 13. Siskind: graphic signs &quot;For the first time in my life, subject matter, as such, had ceased to be of primary importance,&quot; Siskind said. &quot;Instead, I found myself involved in the relationships of these objects, so much so that these pictures turned out to be deeply moving and personal experiences.&quot; Chicago 16 , 1957 Martha’s Vineyard , 1954
  14. 14. In Focus: Ralph Eugene Meatyard <ul><li>Another American photographer who has explored a wide range of imagery, including abstraction is Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Self-taught and an optician by profession, Meatyard’s intense vision, interest in Eastern mysticism and restless formal and technical experimentation , resulted in images which are often both melancholy and revelatory. </li></ul>&quot;I work on several different groups of pictures which act on and with each other -- ranging from several abstracted manners to a form of the surreal . I have been called a preacher -- but, in reality, I'm more generally philosophical. I have never made an abstracted photograph without content. An educated background in Zen influences all of my photographs.”
  15. 15. Untitled (Motion-Sound) 1970-71 Untitled (Motion-Sound) 1974 Meatyard experimented with the more technical and formal aspects of the camera, using long exposures to record light reflecting off water, extreme focus for his “no-focus” images, and shallow depth of field for his “Zen twigs” series. The visualization of the passage of time played an important role for Meatyard in all of his photographs —from long exposures to the maturation of his children, from timeworn buildings to the changing light gracing the natural world. For one of his last series, titled “Motion-Sound,” he made pictures by moving the camera gently, creating multiple exposures of woodland scenes that suggest visual sound patterns. Motion Sound