The Shape of Light – Tate Modern until October 14th 2018

16 Jul


It is not a question of whether photography can make abstract interpretations that is proven beyond doubt at Tate Moderns comprehensive show The Shape of Light. The conundrum is, should it? Abstract art and photography are mostly considered as separate issues, this makes no sense; the tools for paint can be used for figurative or abstract so why cant the tools for photography, lens, shutter and light sensitive surface. The interpretation of photography – to draw with light is no more specific a descriptor of outcomes than the word painting. Fine art is an approach a thought or thought process that defines and resolves an idea. There is an argument that any photograph that is a personal subjective interpretation is an abstract view that expresses something that can be appreciated intellectually as well as visually; probably more so as the viewer will use their own cultural individuality to interpret what they see, or more importantly if the argument is accepted, feel what they see. Work on show by Siskind from Chicago and Martha’s Vineyard, Rusha’s aerial car park shots are examples of this, figurative in terms of content but intellectually abstract in communication of a personal idea. Stretching that, literally, are Brandt’s beach nudes where the lens has altered reality but the visual components are essentially figurative. From the medium’s first days discourse hung on the dilemma of ‘is photography art or mechanical reproduction’. Should the medium have stuck to its formal origins and not explored its own parameters? While technically limited until middle-aged, photography, especially in the digital era, has always explored the edge of its frame of reference with each technical revolution. Man Ray’s aesthetically ambiguous Dust Breeding image from 1923 altered photography’s visual language from the figurative into an intellectual question to the viewer. The image can be read in any number of ways. Although Man Ray is well represented with other examples of his surrealist work this critical image is not present and seems an omission in the case the show sets out to prove. 19th century advances in chemical photography allowed more flamboyant often camera less imagery to evolve, Floris Neusiss constructions of light; now the addition of Digital methods, Thomas Ruff phg 10 for example, has added another almost boundless level of interpretation to the medium. This latest revolution in imaging has also given photography the ability to compete with art in terms of scale, playing with size is now another strength in the genres cerebral abstract toolbox. While The Shape of Light fully answers it’s enquiry in a vivid and stylish manor, any remaining quandary revolves around the notion should it not can it; just because it is possible does not necessarily validate the action, increasingly true of often apparently seemingly thoughtless digital work. What the show does do is inspire and encourage bravery in the exploration of where the imagination can take photography, and that offers boundless abstractive possibilities for the future.  

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