… Sorry for this apparent pompous title, but it is merely a pun on word with jazz album title “Blues and the Abstract Truth”, by Oliver Nelson (1962), a great album by the way…
No blues here, but a boy, Alex O’Brien, a 16 year old english photographer based in Cambridge UK.
I am not a real fan of abstract in photography, for several reasons that I will try to summarize briefly later on in this post. Also I don’t really get how most contemporary photographers classify their work as ‘abstract’. More than often abstract is a pretext to come up with something non-figurative but “pretty” and pleasant-looking in the first place, the kind of stuffs that hype restaurants managers would hang in their room, i.e. the somewhat visual art equivalent of elevator music (which I appreciate too ;)) … Sorry for being harsh and little offensive here but I do believe that when good-looking is the genuine – though sometimes undeclared – purpose it begins to be a mere matter of taste, and the final outcome might range from eye-candy, pretty (in the good sense) to cheesy. A matter of taste… is the problem since I believe that Art ends where taste begins (or the other way round).
There is nothing of that with Alex, as it is very obvious that he couldn’t care less about prettiness.
Abstract in photography began almost simultaneously as in painting, in the early 1910’s or so. There was Man Ray, who was among the first to come up with artistic outcome based on photographic emulsion paper without using the medium (i.e. nor camera nor film). Other photograms were made by László Moholy-Nagy and Christian Schad… Afterward many photographers did attempts in the abstract field, using more regular techniques and many of them without making a specialty of it… And in the 1910’s there was also British photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn who did shots with the use of kaleidoscopic device that he would call ‘vortographs”.
Reproduced below is one of Coburn’s vortograph.
… and what Alex did with his Nikon D90 is not very far – at least from mere visual perspective.
Now the reason why I am not a big fan of Abstract photography (apart from the few words in introduction of this post) is that I find it hardly competes with abstract painting – and more generally any non pure-photo visual arts (including collage etc…). First and foremost other visual arts can provide visual information which is not just encapsulated in the support, as it is in a photo print. For example if Pierre Soulages black paintings are not plain black, it is because the way oil is laid down the canvas would provide motifs and gray scales by the action of surrounding light on it. In such abstract paintings there is additional dimension and interaction of the environment (natural light and resulting shadows) which is caused by the dry oil itself, its texture, thickness and any other material that may be used in the process.
Furthermore because a photo can be used as a material in collage it is tempting to assess that whatever successful you are in doing abstract photography it can always be reduced as a mere material for other visual arts.
Now I know this kind of statement is very reducing and photography has specific characteristics that makes it a relevant and powerful medium for abstract as well…. But this is much more challenging than it appears in the first place (and the reason why I don’t risk myself in that!). I do believe that in order to be successful to work as an abstract, a photography should represent a visual phenomenon which is questionable per se, and not just interpretation of a common subject matter – be it altered by common photographic techniques such as blur etc…. To put it roughly if the viewer thinks/says in the first place “This is a beautiful rendition of x” or “What’s that ? (with the only concern of guessing what is captured) ” it does not really work.
And this is precisely why I think Alex is successful, as well as Alvin Coburn was. Because not only he ignores doing something pretty, not only he is creating fine composition involving harmony, rhythm as well as tension, but furthermore he manages to create a peculiar visual phenomenon. In other words whereas many photographer would interpret a subject matter for a mere aesthetic outcome Alex O’Brien would reduce and alter the superficial information from subject matter to come up with something directly questionable as the heart of the (subject) matter, which is precisely what abstraction is about.