Abstract Photography Issues

CONTACT photography festival in Toronto this year filled me with immense joy. I went to several galleries and the MOCCA opening, and all the artworks I saw spoke to my deepest concerns in photography and were just gorgeous to behold!

What made me especially happy was that abstract photography was central to several primary exhibitions.* The double show Part Picture + Past Picture at MOCCA featured works by contemporary and classical photographers where abstract characteristics are central; Makeshift at Gallery 44 offered an extension of such explorations. As someone who has been making abstract prints for a little while now, I’ve formulated a set of issues for myself, and I was delighted to see these issues raised in these exhibitions.

One of the major issues in abstract photography is that it is always a photograph of something real, even if manipulated to the extreme – otherwise if solely created on a computer, it is digital art. Therefore, abstract photography can never be entirely non-representational. It is, however, at times perceived and discussed as such. The central questions I don’t know the answer to, but seek to explore, are:
- What happens to the initial objects after the reality around them is cropped by the lens, translated in-camera, transposed during post-processing and finally recorded on paper?
- To what extent do recognizable elements in an image still act as the same objects as at the moment of being captured?
- Is it really necessary to know what the photograph is about in order to grasp its artistic merits?

Artworks presented in Makeshift feature easily recognizable everyday objects alongside highly specialized ones, which a viewer would be able to identify only with the help of the artist’s statement. For instance, curator Noa Bronstein explains that Ève K. Tremblay photographed items left by the sculpting process in the studio of her father, Alain-Marie Tremblay ( http://evektremblay.com/clair-obscur-dans-latelier-de-mon-pre ). Without that information, some of these photographs would be aesthetic enigmas impossible to solve. And yet, even with that information, the enigma remains and grows. While gazing upon Ève K. Tremblay’s photographs, a viewer might experience a sublime feeling of getting closer to the mystery of artistic creation. To what extent is that feeling connected to the reality of the studio? Does the interplay of shadows reveal something about Alain-Marie Tremblay’s artistic agency? Or perhaps we are assigning these images significance because we were told about the loaded nature of what we see.

Ultimately, what I’d like to know is whether the sublime feeling (generated by these and other artworks of the same kind) is rooted solely in the aesthetic qualities of the photograph, to what extend it depends on visual literacy of the viewer, and whether the intellatual superstructure is necessary for the feeling to occur, or is just a device for interpreting what we feel.

*a version of this post first appeared in ARToronto

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