Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art at Tate Modern

7th September 2018

Photography (derived from the Greek words photos – for “light” and graphos-for “drawing”) became a tool for graphic expression in the early to mid-19thcentury. With Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre inventing the first publicly available photographic process, the ‘Daguerrotype’, and William Henry Fox Talbot’s development of the ‘Sun Pictures’ in 1839, these innovators harnessed the sun’s light to record drawings of objects, plants and spaces onto metal plates and light sensitive paper. Discovering the wonderous and far-reaching possibilities of photography, their work came to define the paradigm shift that represented a familiar yet wholly original medium. In the 21stcentury, photography is a medium that is not only celebrated in the world of art but has rapidly evolved through the advancements of technology and has come to define the way we digitally document the world today.
From photograms to sculptures, Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art at Tate Modern explores perception, abstraction and composition in a series of photographic works from the early pioneers and experimentations of the 1910s to the digital innovators of the 21stcentury. With a focus on abstract photography, the exhibition spans over 12 rooms and is separated into themes such as, “New Visions”, “Structure and Texture”, and “Contemporary Abstraction” which correspond to the chronological timeframe of the evolution of photography.

Maya Rochat, b.1985, A Rock is a River (META RIVER), 2017. Courtesy Lily Robert © Maya Rochat

As the first show of this scale to uncover the development of abstract photography through over 350 featured works and over 100 artists, Shape of Light places emphasis on those who have explored the medium of abstraction in relation or response to iconic paintings and sculptures. By juxtaposing works by painters with photographic explorations by photographers, such as George Braque’s cubist painting together with Pierre Dubreuil’s photographs and by setting Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist canvases alongside Otto Steinert’s famed ‘luminograms’, visitors take notice of how the world of painting came to influence photography, and vice-versa.

Otto Steinert, 1915-1978, Luminogram II, 1952, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 302 x 401 mm. Jack Kirkland Collection, Nottingham © Estate Otto Steinert, Museum, Folkwang, Essen

Photography is a careful choice of perspective; an act which “happens to the photographer,” as Lorca once argued. The show also demands care and attention from the visitor, who must look at the intimate details within each work. On one wall, an image by Brazilian photographer German Lorca draws on the history of modernist photography and the figures within mimic the strict geometry of horizontals and verticals in one of Piet Mondrian’s compositions that sits beside it, while on another, a series of Man Ray’s photograms, or ‘rayograms’ (as he would call them), draw on surrealist sensibilities that transform everyday objects into useful items. Whizzing through the decades of experimental and daring photography is no feat for tired eyes; a sharp focus is necessary for the full appreciation of the endless possibilities and perspectives offered in these works.

Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944, Swinging, 1925. Oil paint on board 705 x 502 mm Tate

The photographs on display feature key ideas including the exploration of the human body, transparency through colour, negative imaging and surprising combinations that defamiliarise subjects by deconstructing the photographic print. By presenting objects and subjects as fragments, photography moves beyond the reproduction of reality and into the realm of memory-making and the creation of alternate realities. The unusual parallels unveiled in Shape of Light introduce new possibilities for photography as a visual art and shed light on the potential opportunities for abstraction in photography.
Words by Dominic Sylvia Lauren
Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art is on at Tate Modern, London, until 14 October 2018

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