Abstract Photography In Focus

Abstract Photography In Focus

How can photography document more than what the eye can see? This was the question facing creatives in the early 20th century. Their goal was not perfect realism, but artistic expression. One of the earliest adopters of this idea was Alvin Langdon Coburn, who built a kaleidoscope-like device called a “Vortography” made up of three mirrors clamped together. The idea was that when it was fitted over the lens of a camera, it would reflect and refract the image. The result was some of the earliest examples of experimental photography. The tradition was carried on by pioneering artists including Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy and Dora Maar during the early part of the 20th century. Now, contemporary names like Barbara Kasten and Wolfgang Tillmans are synonymous with the discipline, using it to comment on today’s most pressing issues. Here are five exhibitions that ripple with innovation and experimentation. 

Man Ray: Liberating Photography  

Photo Elysee, Lausanne  

“To be totally liberated from painting and its aesthetic implications”. That was the primary aim of Man Ray (1890-1976). His resultant photographs saw him emerge as one of the most prominent figures in Surrealism. Ray’s experimentations in the darkroom turned the traditional medium into a powerful tool of artistic creation, something he said freed him from painting. He was known for his reinterpretation of traditional techniques, such as rediscovering the cameraless photogram, which he named “Rayograph”, and the technique of solarisation. Now, Photo Elysee presents an exhibition exploring the artist’s extensive social contacts through some of his most iconic works. The collection is not only a “who’s who” of the Parisian Intelligentsia but a showcase of the innovations in photography made by Ray. Almost 50 years after his death, Ray’s experimental and ambitious photography continues to fascinate us. 

Fazal Shiekh’s (b.1965) latest show sheds light on the consequences of extractive industry and climate change. Shiekh is best known for his images of displaced communities and marginalised people and for encourgaing museum goers to think about the world beyond the gallery walls. Now, he presents three interconnected series. Thirst is a collection of aerial shots that document the decline of the Great Salt Lake in northwest Utah, which is shrinking due to dwindling rain and snowfall. Exposure examines the impacts of uranium, coal, oil and natural-gas extraction on the American Southwest and its Indigenous inhabitants. In Place evokes the enduring landscapes of the Bears Ears region in Utah and showcases Sheikh’s photographs alongside contributions from scientists and Indigenous communities. The striking images encourage us to reflect on the juxtaposition between beauty and catastrophe.  

Dora Maar: Behind the Lens  

Amar Gallery, London  

Dora Maar (1907-1977) has historically and inaccurately been described as a muse rather than an artist, most famously as the figure in Pablo Picasso’s The Weeping Woman. Amar Gallery, which champions overlooked female, LGBTQ and minority figures, seeks to refocus attention onto Maar’s extensive work. Curator Amar Singh said in an interview with Artnet, “as a photographer, she was a pioneer admired by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray. Her position as Picasso’s lover clouded over her undeniable artistic talent.” Maar became known for her provocative photomontages, most notably her Untitled (Hand-Shell) (1934), which sees a woman’s hand emerge from a large seashell in front of an obscure, cloudy backdrop. This exhibition, which includes unseen, recently discovered images from Maar’s estate, reveals a fascinating portrait of a woman who was both a pioneer of abstract photography and a significant influence upon one of the most famous artists of the 20th century.  

What are the key issues that have plagued photographers over time? This question is central in Centre Pompidou-Metz’s Seeing Time in Colour. Split into three sections, the exhibition examines the unique challenges that have marked the history of the discipline. Infinite Reproduction considers the one of the greatest concerns for artists in the 19th century – what does the possibility of immediate recreation of reality mean for the status of art as a unique creation? Encapsulating Time, meanwhile, foregrounds how artists and scientists worked together to expand what was visible in images. Fixing Colour looks at the ultimate challenge – capturing the spectrum. The show brings together works for 50 artists, including early pioneers like Gustave Le Gray, and landmark works such as Doctor Harold Edgerton’s Milk Drop Coronet, which was the first image to use modern “stroboscopic” – seeing the birth of the flash. They remind us that photography is an infinite source of inspiration and innovation for artists and creatives.  

Bryan Graf: Midnight Swim  

Yancy Richardson, New York  

Bryan Graf’s (b. 1982) latest show is rooted in his experiences of nature as both “ecstatic and entropic”, depicting personal vegetation decaying and blossoming simultaneously. The exhibition includes photographs from his ongoing series, Hallucinations, in which multiple exposures of a canopy of wisteria were taken over a full day. Planted at his childhood home the summer he was born, the forty-year-old wisteria has functioned as both a touchstone and metaphor for Graf throughout his career. He places coloured gels over the camera lens to accentuate a tone, atmosphere, mood or memory. The artist explains: “the chromatic vapour of memory is constantly swirling; these stand as testaments to the layered sensations of being engulfed in that canopy, which still feels as magical as when I was a kid.” 

Image Credit:


Fazal Sheikh, from the series Thirst: Great Salt Lake, November 2022. Pigmented inkjet print.© and courtesy of Fazal Sheikh.

Dora Maar. Virgin and Crucifix II (ca. 1980.) Photo courtesy of Amar Gallery.

Harold Edgerton, Milk drop coronet, 1957, 50,8 x 40,64 cm Dye-Transfer
Collection Arlette et Gus Kayafas © Harold Edgerton/MIT, courtesy Palm Press, Inc., from the Kayafas.

Bryan Graf, Midnight Swim, 2022. Unique chromogenic photogram, 54 x 43 3/4 inches.