Jackson Pollock once said, "That fucking Picasso, he's done everything already!" That was painting on canvas. This is photography.
The original image recorded on a photographic surface contained elements of truth and abstraction, or rather, distorted truth, due to the primitive "camera's" poor optics and the primitive quality of the photographic emulsion. This newly discovered method of science soon became perfected and used for its ability to document truth and fact. In the 1920's, photograms were discovered, essentially the process of recording "truth" onto photographic paper without the need of conventional photographic tools such as camera and film. An image could be recorded directly onto the photographic paper by being placed upon it and exposed to light and then developed.
Almost the entire history of abstraction in photography has stemmed from the use of the photogram and its ability to capture an image onto photographic paper and distort the medium's ability to record truth. However much the artist has been able to distort the original source and misrepresent fact, photograms are certainly not pure abstraction within the photographic medium as they have been considered. While some photograms are incredibly beautiful, such as the works of Ellen Carey and Adam Fuss, some not so beautiful, Man Ray and Maholy-Nagy, they are not pure abstraction as they are created by placing an actual subject upon the photographic paper. This real, priority subject leaves traces of itself, truths about it's shape and materiality, it's opaqueness and color. Sure some photograms are unmistakenly beautiful and have helped to redefine the use and limits of photography as an art form. Surely they are far more true in art than conventional photographs in that the artist exhibits control over the constructed image instead of capturing an image that was already created in nature onto film. They are still, however, not pure photographic abstraction as the art historians would have us all believe. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has on display a photogram by Man Ray. It is the only "abstract" image on display in it's photography gallery. This image is described as being the essence of abstraction in photography. Also the Guggenheim Museum had an abstract retrospective in 1996, focusing primarily on abstract painters such as Pollock, De Kooning, and others from the history of abstraction in painting. One "abstract" photographic image was included by Maholy-Nagy. Like the Man Ray at the MOMA, a similar description of abstraction in photography and the photograms prominence was included.
On the conventional photography side there is Aaron Siskind who is considered to be the definitive Abstract Expressionist photographer. Siskind's work is so far from being purely abstract, that it doesn't even come close to representing the distortions of reality that photograms have. His work consists of true images that depict fact of natural reality that has been taken out of context to resemble the abstraction found in modern painting. His photographs depict truth, pure and simple, however it may be disguised.
Are we to believe that this is the limit of expression within the photogaphic medium? No. Are photograms pure and true abstraction? No. Is there anything left to say through abstraction in photography? Yes. Photography has often been viewed as being not as high an art form as painting, drawing, and sculpture have been. There is some truth to this, in that a photograph is an accurate record of reality rather than an artist's creation. Often, the photographer did not create that reality. It existed already in nature. The photographer merely captured that reality with camera. Sure, exposure and other technical elements had to be taken into consideration, but the subject was not created or rendered or manipulated by the photographer, merely captured, recorded, and documented. This is not art, this is science. Similar, yet far more in the artistic vain are photograms, photography's equivalent to painting's still lifes. At least photograms offer some creativity, some manipulation by the artist, some form of expression of the one creating the image. They do not represent reality with as much certainty as do conventional photographs, yet they are based entirely upon real subjects, real objects, and in that respect, real truths and facts, and are therefore not a pure form of abstraction like abstract painting, abstract drawing, abstract sculpture. Although abstraction in these other mediums may be loosely derived from a real subject that has been manipulated by the artist's imagination and hand, they do not depict truth as they are generated from the mind of the artist, not by camera or by imprint on photographic paper as in photograms.
Is pure abstraction possible in photography? Yes. Mike and Doug Starn achieved pure abstraction through minimalism with their toned images of nonexposed photographic paper in the late 1980's. These works removed every element of the photographic process and relied only upon the photographic material of paper coated with emulsion. Photographic minimalism at its purest. More collage than photograph, the paper was then toned and taped together in their usual style to create imageless images which are reminiscent of the geometric abstract paintings of Mondrian.
Similarly, the minimalist work of Ellen Carey is also purely abstract. Although some of here recent work derives from the photogram process, others called "Pulls" derive only from colored light. Utilizing the Polaroid 20x24 camera to create unique monochrome images, Carey has developed images without content and subject resulting in a pure form of abstract photography. As innovative and beautiful as these "photographs" are, they do not contain one element vital to the power of Abstract Expressionism, the element of gesture.
Is it possible to create gesture within the photographic medium? Yes. Gesture in photography is not an established concept. James Nares was able to create gesture onto film by recording his movements of a light across the image space of a camera with an open shutter. Nares' photographs looked more like paintings than photographs and contained the real emotion of the artist within his work, the real essence of the human gesture recorded onto film. Nares was able to create pure abstraction in photography. Unfortunately, Nares has moved on to capturing his gesture within the medium of painting.
Is this the limit of gesture and pure abstraction capable within photography? No. Within my work I create Lucemographs, essentially light drawings rendered onto photographic emulsion, whether onto film in the camera or more directly onto photographic paper or ortho film in the darkroom. These Lucemographs are the next evolutionary step in pure photographic abstraction. By removing all subject and utilizing the only necessary element in nature to create an image onto photographic emulsion, the element of light, I create unique images that contain no reference to natural reality and capture the evidence of my movements over time and space. Images are drawn onto conventional photographic paper, metallic silver polyester based paper (essentially film coated with an opaque silver emulsion), or ortho litho film, subtracting the photographic paper altogether. The unique images are then often toned and layered to create a three dimensional space which is uniquely abstract and pure. Often, unlike conventional photography, this image cannot be recreated as there is no negative. Sometimes these unique multilayered ortho film images are contact printed to create positive Lucemographs and then processed all over again resulting in an image which further explores the dimensions of random uncertainty, automatic writing, and gesture. By working the image and developing it over time, I am able to intuitively render it as it begins to become visible, essentially adding more to areas of the "canvas" that need to be emphasized resulting in an image that began as automatic writing later to evolve into a cohesive controlled work of art that bears the traces of my own unique physical movements and primal marks.
Created through subtraction, pure abstraction in photography is not only beautiful, it is expressive as the evidence of the artist's hand can be uniquely recorded and developed and an image can be worked from the ground up as it develops over time intuitively. By removing all content and concentrating on line, movement, shape, time, gesture, and emotion, Lucemography achieves purity of abstraction and process while remaining entirely within the conventions of the photographic medium and its methods. The elements of the photographic process such as film, paper, developer, fixer, toners, and light are all that is utilized. Often, the camera and enlarger are subtracted from the equation as well.
This is pure abstraction within the photographic medium. Through subtraction of subject and lucidity of process, I have been able to explore and emphasize the elements of this medium to create a diverse body of work which opens new doors for photography itself and challenges the historical view of not only photography as a valid art form, but also pure abstraction within photography as an expressive and emotional means to create images that do have the vitality and presence of the works perfected by the abstraction in American painting of the '40s and '50s. Is it truly possible to create gesture that speaks directly to the conscious without the mediation of context within the photographic medium? Yes.