Camera and Canvas, Together

Tate Modern's new exhibition presents over 300 photographs, along with paintings and sculptures for comparison, to explore the medium's avant-garde ambitions

Maya Rochat's 'A Rock Is a River' (2018)

PHOTOGRAPHY was invented to be representational. In 1844 William Fox Talbot, one of the very first photographers, called the medium “the pencil of nature.” He meant that light — bouncing off objects in the outside world, then coming through a lens and falling on a photosensitive surface capable of preserving the resultant image — could make a more accurate and detailed “drawing” than any traditional draftsman could fashion by hand. Paul Delaroche, a realist French painter of the time, supposedly said upon seeing his first photograph, “From today, painting is dead.”
 Not so fast. Shortly after photography was born, painting started on a revitalization path taking it gradually toward abstraction: Manet to Monet to Cézanne to Cubism and Kandinsky. Meanwhile, several photographers, whether to keep up with painting, or just to fool around with something new, began taking their own medium into abstraction. The stated purpose of Tate Modern's new exhibition “The Shape of Light” is to “explore photography in relation to the development of abstraction,” from the experiments of a hundred years ago to the “digital innovations of the 21st century.” To do this, the exhibition hangs more than 300 photographs on its walls “side-by-side with iconic paintings and sculptures” by the likes of Braque, Mondrian, Brancusi, Mirò, Pollock and Bridget Riley. (“Side-by-side” is a bit of a stretch, since there are fewer than 20 nonphotographic works of art in the show.)

Photography struggles to compete with other forms when it comes to abstraction

Edward Ruscha's 'Intersections of Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds.' (1967, printed 2013)

So how does a photograph get to be abstract? Up until our day, when much of the darkroom has disappeared into the computer, there were four basic approaches. The first was to get so close to the subject that its image became well-nigh unrecognizable, as in Paul Strand's 1916 “Abstraction,” a picture of parts of bowls. The second involved getting as far away from the subject — preferably overhead — as the photographer could, as in “From the Radio Tower, Berlin” (1928) by László Moholy-Nagy. Then there's the oddangle view, as with Margaret Bourke-White's “NBC Transmission Tower” (c. 1934), where the photographer looks straight up through a skeletal structure normally seen from the outside.
 Finally comes eliminating the camera itself. This involved making “photograms” by placing objects directly onto sheets of film and shining a light down on the assemblage (Man Ray called his “Rayographs”), or going hog-wild with chemicals in the darkroom. As for manipulating pixels on a computer, there is “A Rock Is a River” (2018) by Maya Rochat. It's the final work in the exhibition — one exits through it—combining what might be called interstellargasmic wallpaper with framed rectangles of much the same mounted on it, all garnished by patterns of flickering light coming from an overhead projector.
 With Ms. Rochat's photodelirium, “The Shape of Light” goes right off the rails. Not that it was ever firmly on track to begin with. Most of the photographs in the show are black and white and — especially compared to even the modest- sized paintings present — small. In such quantity and company, the photographs are tedious viewing.
 At Tate Modern on a crowded summer day, I saw person after person step close to peer at one of the little gray things for half a second, then retreat, puzzled at what was supposed to be so visually arresting about that, before trudging on to the next one. For museums, the inconvenient truth is that pioneering photographic abstraction is much better as lap material— finely printed on thick coated stock in a book—than as stand-and-view gallery fare in hundreds of examples. When it's abstract, or close to it, photography is a poor stand-in for painting.
 Its surface — utterly flat, usually with a dull semigloss finish — is too bland to be interesting. Tethered to the camera, abstract photography seems tepid and tame even compared with, say, equally flat silkscreen prints by abstract painters. Unfortunately for the photographs, the paintings in “The Shape of Light” blow them out of the water. Vaudevillians were always advised never to work with children or animals; photographers who work in abstraction should take the same advice about paintings.
 Some photographs have been unfairly dragooned into the service of the exhibition's theme of photography pursuing abstraction. Ed Ruscha's aerial views of Southern California parking lots, with their painted herringbones designating individual slots, are social criticism (in this case, of automobile-caused land waste), and not, as the curators would have it, a kind of abstraction. Ruscha took the same quietly hilarious tack with gas stations, swimming pools, garish stucco apartment houses, and bogus real-estate “opportunities” way out in the desert. His is deadpan, tongue-in-cheek, and affectionate social criticism from an Oklahoman who came to L.A. to study art and fell in love with the place.
 “The Shape of Light” would have made a great book because its subtitle, “100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art,” is a story that needs to be told. But the show's catalog, while graphically concise and rhetorically sophisticated, is not the grand tome the topic requires. Perhaps any equivalent survey on the walls of a museum as vast as Tate Modern would fail, as “The Shape of Light,” alas, does.

The Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art  
Tate Modern, through Oct. 14

Margaret Bourke-White's 'NBC Transmission Tower' (c. 1934), above


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