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

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

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. ‘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

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