Abstraction in Photography: Analytical Essay

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Almost two centuries after its invention, artists are still grappling with defining and discovering the limits of photography. These limits are meant to be questioned. Photography is debatably one of the most confusing mediums. It has gone through extensive interrogation, and has dramatically transformed through technological development, more so than painting or sculpture. Photography is no more than a recording of light, and any attempt to label it further is simply wrong (Rexer). The medium is uniquely frustrating because it is not always immediately identifiable by the viewer as photography. With such a broad space to play, artists have been challenging how ideas are represented in photography for years. Abstract imagery that ventures far from a documentary, “this-is-what-my-eye-saw” image is more prevalent today than ever before. With a medium so young, it cannot possibly be because we are bored of the traditional. Despite its high presence in art culture today, abstract work has always existed and challenged what we see and define as photography.

In The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, Lyle Rexer notes William Henry Fox Talbot as an artist that made abstract work. Upon first thought, this idea seems a bit too far fetched. Talbot is about as traditional as one could get when talking about photography, as he was one of the first to even make a photograph. Rexer places the abstract label upon Talbot because he was ultimately working with no guiding images. Each new photograph he made was an experiment, with only what he had made prior to go off of. Artists like Talbot, and notably Anna Atkins, were making photograms in the 1840s and 50s. Atkins was a botanist, and used the photogram as a way to document her findings. Despite this traditional intention, Atkins created images that relied on form and shape alone (“Anna Atkins”). While early abstract imagery, and still much of the imagery we deem abstract today, seems to be devoid of a narrative, this just is not the case. Abstract imagery really only needs to challenge the medium, the process, or the idea of an image, however they do have levels of thought and research behind them like any other image.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, born in 1882, invented what is referred to as a vortograph. The vortograph’s main characteristic is its kaleidescope like reflections, made possible by a triangulation of mirrors courtesy of Coburn. Coburn made his vortotgraphs to prove that photography and abstraction were not opposites (Coburn). So shortly after slight guidelines of photography had been indirectly declared, they were being challenged. It’s always interesting to learn that artists from two centuries prior shared the same sentiments and challenged the same ideas many artists are today, whether for better or worse is up to the individual. Coburn’s vortograph is seen as varied inspiration in imagery today, intentional or not. For example, Barbara Kasten’s images immediately came to mind when viewing the vortographs.

When photography was invented, despite the immediate experimentation that began, it was placed into a position of documentation. A medium had been created that could document reality quicker with less personal bias than any other before it, even though we now know photography is not free of personal bias and the act of framing constitutes as editing the image. Placing photography into this box where it cannot leave is like telling all painters that they can only paint sunsets: so much more can be done (Rexer). Man Ray is an artist that used shape and form to, like every artist mentioned, challenge the medium. His work has deep connections to the Dada and Surrealist movements, and is most recognizable through his “rayographs” — photograms, essentially (“Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky): MoMA”). Shape and form seem to be connecting themes with artists labeled as abstract.

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In regards to analog photography, when a print is made using a negative, the focus tends to be on what exists within the negative. When an image is made only using light and the photographic paper, such as a photogram, the viewer is more or less looking at the paper itself. Any image, negative or not, is made up of shapes. However, when these shapes are much more apparent to the eye, the focus of the viewer shifts from the narrative within a negative to the print as an object. The absence of an apparent subject emphasizes the materiality of the medium that much art without the abstraction label fails to do. Man Ray took more traditional photographs that still play on form, however his “rayographs” hold much more historical power in regards to abstract imagery.

Frederick Sommer is an interesting piece of the history of abstraction puzzle because as an artist who dabbled in multiple mediums, his work reflected characteristics of drawing. With Sommer’s work, we move into the 1940s through the 60s. Sommer was not the first artist to visually reference another medium, however, it is important to note that at some point in history, we were so strongly opposed to allusions to other mediums. Eventually that line was crossed and accepted. Sommer’s still life photographs contain subjects reminiscent of paint, embossed drawings, and a more physical sculpturing of paper. With Sommer’s work, the need to know what the viewer is seeing becomes more common. Is it a traditional photograph using a negative? Is it a photogram? Regardless of the answer, what are we looking at? (Rexer).

When asking any of these questions from the viewer perspective, towards the photography previously mentioned or existing outside of this assemblage, it is important to acknowledge why we inquire. Why is viewership so strongly rooted in understanding? Abstract imagery is being questioned far more in regards to purpose than traditional, documentary images. Is it that traditional images replicate “what the eye sees”, and any image that even slightly resembles something not of our perceived reality sends our brains into a spiral?

I do not possess the answers to these questions for anyone, even myself. I suppose it has something to do with the idea that photography once was equated with truth, and now that we know this is not the case, and never was, we feel the need to interrogate our art. In a more personal analysis, I find myself inquiring about the why’s and what’s of an image because of a fear of having a wrong interpretation. I will pause my personal reflection with the thought that maybe we inquire more of the what’s and the why’s with abstract imagery because unlike documentary images, it is harder to find a direct historical tie. Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl is highly regarded because it shows the horrifying realities many were blind to during the Vietnam War. If we place László Moholy-Nagy’s A 17 next to it, undoubtedly the mind will begin to wonder what and why. It is rooted in our need to find and deem significance, and as to why we do that I even more so do not know.

Works Cited

  1. “Anna Atkins.” Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/anna-atkins/.
  2. Coburn, Alvin Langdon. “Alvin Langdon Coburn. Vortograph. 1916–17: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/collection/works/83725.
  3. “Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky): MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/artists/3716#works.
  4. Rexer, Lyle, and Lesley A. Martin. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. Aperture, 2009.
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