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Abstract Photography

Photography was initially limited by technology and chemistry to portraiture, still life, and landscapes. Yet it was not long before considerable advances in camera portability and sophisticated printing papers allowed photographers to experiment with abstraction. Advocates for art photography appeared as early as the 1890s, shunning false backgrounds set up for portraiture within studio walls.

In both France and the United States, artists began to create pictorial photographs that imitated the effects of painting, prints and drawings. In the early 20th century, photographers advocated for straight photographs that relied on composition, and promoted the pure aesthetics of the medium. Sharp detail was sought, leading photographers to experiment with capturing form apart from subject matter.

Alfred Steiglitz, a lifelong champion of artistic and straight photography, produced pictures of clouds and sun called Equivalents in the 1920s. The Equivalents are abstractions, forms floating in space, recognizable for what they are, but also causing the viewer to contemplate pattern and form.


Quick Facts

  • California-based photographer Edward Weston pioneered such sharp focus that both the foreground and background of a photograph would be clear. He combined the two opposing forces of realism and abstraction, and in works such as Artichoke Halved, the abstract pattern is revealed as a descriptive detail of the vegetable
  • In Paris, Christian Schad and Man Ray created Schadographs and Rayographs, respectively, by placing objects on sensitized paper, and upon exposure to the sun, making images of shapes and their shadows in an abstract collage
  • Hungarian photographer André Kertész experimented with abstracting the human form by using unusual camera angles and techniques in the 1930s. These works are best represented by the Distortion series, where he used reflective mirrors to abstract bodies

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