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Abstract Photography Collage

Abstract Photography

Started: 1916
Abstract Photography Timeline
The most astonishing possibilities remain to be discovered in the raw material of the photograph
László Moholy-Nagy Signature

Summary of Abstract Photography

Abstract photography is a term with ambiguous connotations, associated but not limited to the achievements of groups such as the Photo-Secession, Straight Photography, and New Vision movements. Since the late nineteenth century, photographers have been determined to match the formal and conceptual advances of other genres within Modern Art. The result is an extraordinary and varied body of work in which the compositional traits and subject-matter of traditional photography recede from view. Here are abstract photograms made without cameras by exposing found objects and treated photosensitive paper to natural light; surreal close-up and long-distance images, in which the details of natural or architectural patterning become abstract compositional motifs; and conceptual and installation-based works in which photography is incorporated into sophisticated mixed-media practices.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • One of the key advances of abstract photography has been the realization that cameras are not required to make photographs. In the early twentieth century, artists such as Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy began to create bricolage-style works by placing found objects directly onto photosensitive paper, generating graphically-arresting images in which the everyday detritus of modern life is rendered luminous and strange.
  • Since the early advances of Schad, Man Ray et al, abstract artists have continually returned to the "photogram" - the cameraless photograph - as a medium allowing for uniquely self-reflexive and creative interventions into the photographic form. Rather than capturing an image by the passage of light through shutters onto photosensitive paper, the paper itself is directly manipulated and treated - often brought into contact with other objects - allowing for a potentially endless array of effects.
  • As a general rule, abstract photography has tended to avert its gaze from extraordinary and arresting subject-matter. Instead, it focuses on the irregular forms and impressions which can be generated by representing familiar objects in new ways: from Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortographs, made using a camera lens adapted with fragments of broken mirror, to contemporary works by Walead Beshty, Liz Deschenes and others.
  • It is impossible to evoke the spirit of abstract photography without mentioning the specific development of aerial photography, a method which now has a much wider currency across commercial and popular art. In the 1940s, however, when William A. Garnett began to photograph tract housing and machine-harvested fields from the wing of his domestic aircraft, the idea of photographing the earth from above was new and strange, in many cases producing surreal images which seemed totally disconnected from the subject-matter they represented.

Overview of Abstract Photography

Abstract Photography Photo

"Move on objects with your eye straight on…Watch them grow large as you approach…Relationships gradually emerge and...assert themselves...that's your picture," Aaron Siskind said. His close-ups of ordinary objects made him a leader of 20th century abstract photography.

Key Artists

  • The iconic photographer Strand redifined the medium through his portraits, city scenes, and abstract compositions that helped define modernist photography in the twentieth century.
  • Schad was both an innovator in early Dada photograms, and later, painted iconic works of the New Objectivity movement.
  • Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
  • Alfred Stieglitz was an American photographer who published the pioneering journal Camera Work. His gallery 291 was a locus for modern artists in America.
  • Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian painter, photographer, and teacher at the Bauhaus School. He was influential in promoting the Bauhaus's multi- and mixed-media approaches to art, advocating for the integration of technological and industrial design elements.
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Do Not Miss

  • Straight Photography is a movement centered on depicting a scene in sharp focus and detail as a way to emphasize the photographic medium and distinguish it from painting. Straight Photographers manipulated darkroom techniques to enhance the photograph with higher contrast and rich tonality.
  • Modern photography refers to a range of approaches from Straight Photography, New Vision photography, Dada and Surrealist photography, and later abstract tendencies.

Important Art and Artists of Abstract Photography

Vortograph (1916-17)

Artist: Alvin Langdon Coburn

This image, one of a number by Coburn seen as the first truly abstract photographs, consists of an intricate pattern made up of sharp diagonal planes. Converging towards the top of the photograph, they contrast with the compact crystalline shapes to the lower left. A sense of dynamic movement is generated, as light is embodied in multilayered planes which seem as tangible as the fractured object from which they are thrown off.

Prior to his work as an abstract photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn was associated with the Pictorialist movement, which sought to bring to photography the impressionistic and atmospheric qualities of late-nineteenth-century painting. He was also a noted portrait photographer, whose 1913 publication Men of Mark contained prints of a raft of venerable authors, artists, and statesmen. His Vortographs thus represent a pronounced turn towards avant-garde approaches later in his career, following his interactions with the artists and writers of the English Vorticist movement - primarily Ezra Pound - and his publication of "The Future of Pictorial Photography" in 1916.

Photography writer Keith Davis describes Coburn's Vortographs as "the first body of artistic photographs in history to embrace total abstraction [...] the best of these Vortographs are quite remarkable: boldly composed, mysteriously unreal, and intensely vibrant with light and energy [...] These images are, most importantly, about the idea of form and power, and come as close as any ever made to giving pictorial expression to thought itself." Later photographers such as the Japanese Kiyoshi Koishi adopted Coburn's approach in works including Early Summer Nerves (1933), while Coburn's influence can also be sensed in the work of contemporary artists such as Barry Stone.

Porch Shadows (1916)

Artist: Paul Strand

Depicting an upturned table on a porch, Paul Strand's witty, improvisational photograph from 1916 emphasizes the interplay of geometric planes of light and shadow, the very banality of the subject-matter encouraging the viewer to focus on the abstract connotations of the image. A large pale oval fills the frame, bisected by sharp diagonal lines which divide sections of white and grey. The cumulative effect is of a sharply-focused image whose basis in reality is obscure.

An early associate of the influential photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, the New York-born Paul Strand was a pioneer of both Straight Photography and the abstract photography movement that partly emerged from it. Like Stieglitz, he can be considered one of the most vital figures in the development of abstract photography during the early twentieth century, though his career spanned across a later period. Strand's work influenced a whole raft of artists who themselves made decisive contributionst to abstract photography, including Stieglitz himself, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and the artists of the San Francisco-based F/64 Group.

Made on Satista paper - a substitute for platinum paper during the shortages of World War I - this particular print has an unusually subtle tonal range, evident in the dark flecks of wear and tear visible on the table's shadowed surface. This was one of many abstract images of everyday objects that Strand created at this point in his career, though he also remained a committed social documentarist throughout hist life, creating various extraordinary portrait series depicting life in different regions of the world during the 1960s-70s, from Ghana to the Outer Hebrides.

The art historian Helmut Gernsheim has argued that "Strand brought a new vision to photography [...] Nearly all of his pictures broke new ground both in subject matter and presentation." With specific reference to the early part of his career, critic Richard B. Woodward adds that "[w]hether photographing crowds in a park or individuals on the street, apartment-house backyards, a picket fence, trains in a rail yard, or a still life of a jug and fruit, the young artist sought to bring out their abstract components."

Schadograph (1918)

Artist: Christian Schad

Christian Schad's abstract photogram consists of an overlay of various irregular geometric shapes, of differing shades and patterns, some marked with fragments of text or illustration. The white shape rising up through the center of the image, set against the brown patterned areas which also seem to float against the deep black background, creates a sense of rough, bricolage-style texture and depth. The scraps and cuttings take on an obvious aesthetic energy without assuming recognizable form or meaning.

Fleeing as a pacifist during World War I to neutral Switzerland, the German artist Christian Schad became closely associated with the Zurich Dada, and later with the New Objectivity movement. His atmospheric portrait and genre paintings depicting life in interwar Europe are some of the best-known artworks of the period, and are often referred to as "Magical Realist".

Though Man Ray's work in the area of cameraless photography would become more famous, Schad's experiments with contact prints on photosensitive paper precede - and probably influenced - Man Ray's pieces. To create these images, Schad gathered together fragments of discarded paper, fabric, and magazines - often retrieving them from roadsides or trash cans - and arranged them on light-sensitive paper. The "Schadographs", as Tristan Tzara dubbed the results of these experiments, reflected Schad's Dadaist sensibility both in the use of everyday compositional materials and in their avoidance of generic boundaries and obvious representational content. In particular, Schad aimed to create images with jagged and asymmetrical borders "to free them from the convention of the square."

Schad was the first photographer to employ the photogram for artistic purposes. Though he remains a more obscure figure than Man Ray, his work had an enormous impact on the development of abstract photography. Within a few years, both Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy were developing their own versions of the technique pioneered by Schad.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

"Abstract Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
Available from:
First published on 14 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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