Shape of Light
100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art Tracy Calder takes a look at this exploration of the relationship between photography and abstract art
It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than 10 years since Tate hired its first dedicated photography curator, Simon Baker. The following year (2010) it set up the Photography Acquisitions Committee, confirming its commitment to photography as an art form. Since then the family of four art galleries has hosted some extraordinary exhibitions, from ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera’ (Tate Modern, 2010) to ‘The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography’ from the Sir Elton John Collection (Tate Modern, 2017). It has also acquired some incredible images and photo-related collections along the way, most recently Martin Parr’s collection of more than 12,000 photobooks built up over 25 years. Baker announced his departure from Tate earlier this year having accepted a job as director of Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. But with a comprehensive retrospective of Don McCullin planned at Tate Britain for early 2019 it’s clear that his successors have every intention of carrying on where he left off. ‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art’ is the last major exhibition Baker curated at Tate Modern, and it’s a fitting testament to his skills, knowledge and passion for the medium. The show explores the relationship between photography and abstract art, and features work from the 1910s up to the present day including pieces by Antony Cairns, Maya Rochat and Daisuke Yokota commissioned especially for the show. There are 12 rooms in total, many of them featuring a mixture of paintings, sculptures, installation and, of course, photography. What links these artworks is the idea that all of the photographic artists have engaged in some way with abstract art - whether that be by responding to discoveries made by their peers or, on occasion, pre- empting them.
It’s a show that makes you smile with excitement as you stand before Jackson Pollock’s glorious painting ‘Number 23’ before spinning around to see similar mark making and free expression in photographs created during the same period (late 1940s). The first room looks at a time when the essential qualities of painting, sculpture and photography were very distinct, but by the time you reach the last room it is clear that the boundaries have blurred and what you are looking at now is just art. The work in Room 12 ranges from compositions prioritising order and control to wild abstractions – each made after the invention of the first portable digital camera in 1975.
My personal highlights include a superb print of Paul Strand’s photograph ‘Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Connecticut 1916’; Imogen Cunningham’s ‘ Triangles’, taken in 1928; and Man Ray’s fabulous photograph ‘Anatomies’, shot in 1930 and on loan from The Sir Elton John Photography Collection. (I bought a postcard of the latter from the gift shop but, as you can imagine, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.) The pace of the exhibition is good, but much can be gained from a second or even third viewing, as there is much to take in. The final room is my least favourite, and acts
‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art’ runs at Tate Modern, London, until 14 October 2018. Entry is free to Tate Members, £18 for adults (with a £2 discount for advanced booking). For more details, visit www.tate. org.uk ‘It’s an ambitious show, but I believe the team have really pulled it off ’
as a reminder of just how hard contemporary photographers have to work to create something fresh and memorable compared to those who explored the medium when it was still a novelty at the start of the 20th century.
Not every reviewer is as enamoured with ‘Shape of Light’ as I am (Michael Glover from The Independent must have attended a different show to me as he described it as ‘an absurdly over- large, tediously repetitive exhibition of distorted photographs’, but Sean O’Hagan from
The Guardian was more sympathetic calling it ‘an experimental masterclass’). Admittedly it’s an ambitious show, but I, for one, believe Baker and his team have really pulled it off. Head to the exhibition shortly after opening time (10am) on a weekday and you are sure to have plenty of space to contemplate what’s on offer.
‘Untitled’, a collage of prints by Chinese photographer Luo Bonian created in the 1930s
‘Luminogram II’ (1952). German photographer Otto Steinert was a fan of experimentation
‘A Rock is a River (META RIVER)’, 2017, by Maya Rochat is one example of abstraction
‘LDN5_051’ by Antony Cairns who works across photography, installation and sculpture