Number 11
Toward Composition: Via Abstraction

Published February 2006

Thanks to RAWWorkflow’s readers for their patience during my absence from this page, due in part, as Michael Tapes said, to another project, but also in part to illness. Thanks also to those who, inquiring about me via the discussion forum, said kind things about the column. Special thanks to Michael Tapes for his kindness and understanding.

1. Introduction: A Backward Look at Landscape Photographs and Paintings as Preparation for a Look at Abstract Photographs

In September I said, “The more I look and think about photographs the more I think that in the end [the task] boils down to composition.” Using landscapes such as Paul Strand’s, of a field in France

and the British landscape painter John Constable’s Stratford Mill:

I discussed how landscape artists discover and choose a few strong forms in the scene before them and how those forms, dominating the frame, force the scene’s smaller forms into relationships to each other and to the large forms. which relationships are the compositions.

In other words, the subject does not determine composition. The composition is determined first by the artist’s choosing those details of the scene that will be the sources of his large forms; then by his placement of these forms within the frame; then by what smaller forms will fit into the rest of the frame, and how.

This is part of what Constable meant when, in his 1820s London lectures on landscape painting he said that it is not the subject that makes the art. It is quite the other way around.

Of course, aspects of nature can and do inspire the artist, as clouds inspired Constable throughout his long career:

Constable, Study: Cloudy Sky,1820s Constable, Ploughing, Suffolk, 1824

But it is the art that creates the subject.

(Consider the skies in Constable paintings. Sky itself has no upward limit. From painting to painting it was Constable alone who decided how high it should go, that is, where to put the top edge. As for Strand’s picture, above, the earth came from the horizon up to, and beyond, his feet and stretched indefinitely to his left and right. Strand alone determined where the bottom and side edges fell, that is, gave specific shape to the continuously changing earth.)

And so for other landscape paintings, like Corot’s view of Rome:...

Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1871 view of a waterfall (below, left) and Eugene Atget’s 1925 view of a pond near the forest of Fontainebleau that Corot loved and often painted (below, right).

Composition is crucial to all the arts. By means of composition, pictures structure space, the performing arts structure time, poetry structures sound, fiction structures sound and time.

Henry James often referred to his novels as compositions. And in the poem Adam’s Curse William Butler Yeats defined the aim of poetry as “to articulate sweet sounds together.”

Similarly, we can say that the aim of picture making is to articulate sweet shapes together. (If “sweet” seem too narrow—in these violent times–untrue, we can say “to articulate strong forms together”.)

“To articulate”...For example, the clear and unique form the pictures above give to each tree, hedge and field, and the unique shape and topography of the earth.

Given the lens’ fidelity to appearances, the articulation of images of appearances in life into forms in art is the easier part. It is articulating them “together” i.e. composition, that poses the greater challenge.

The subject is so vast–so many kinds of composition!–that I find it useful to approach it via the many different kinds of pictures we make with cameras.

In September it was landscape that showed a way to the understanding of composition. In this column it is abstraction.

2. What Is Abstract Art?

The twentieth-century art historian Meyer Schapiro dates abstract art’s beginning c. 1900-20, when “painters and sculptors broke with the long-established tradition that their arts are arts of representation” [emphasis mine] and no longer felt obligated to create “images bound by certain requirements in accord with the forms of nature.”

Thus, Schapiro continues, painters “freed themselves from the necessity of representation” and in so doing “discovered wholly new fields of form-construction....The artist came to believe that what was essential in art...were two universal requirements: [1] that every work of art has an individual order or coherence, a quality of unity and necessity in its structure regardless of the kind of forms used [i.e., composition]; and [2] that the forms and colors chosen...speak to us as a feeling-charged whole, through the intrinsic power of colors and lines, rather than through the imaging of facial expressions, gestures and bodily movements....The idea of art was shifted, therefore, from the aspect of [representational] imagery to [art’s] expressive, constructive, inventive aspect.”

Abstract photography, then, is photography in which the means of depiction depict only themselves...Photography in which light, shadow, line, shape, texture, value, color, and all other means by which photography represents the world represent only themselves... Photography whose pleasure, feelings and power come only from pure forms, created entirely by forms that do not refer to the world we live in and it’s forms.

3. The Abstract Photography of Ellen Carey

The American photographer Ellen Carey (b. 1952) recently honored me by commissioning me to write an essay on her most recent work, to be published in a retrospective book on her long and distinguished career.

This work contributes importantly to the medium, for Carey has found a way to make abstract photographs that are at once truly abstract and truly photographic.

What one can see immediately in reproductions is that her pictures conform perfectly to our definition of abstract art as a type of art that creates its forms and feeling entirely out of its own materials.

What one can’t see from reproductions is that her pictures are large: from twenty-four inches to three or four feet wide, and from over two feet to as many as seven or ten feet high.

As for abstraction, one cannot reason backwards from these pictures either to what Carey’s subjects are or to the process by which she achieved these results.

Indeed, it is surprising and seems nigh onto impossible that these pictures

like all photographs,

Larry Clark, from Tulsa, 1971 Harry Callahan, Eleanor, 1947

are made with a camera with a subject in front of it, and from light and chemistry.

To understand Carey’s process one must know something about the camera and materials she uses.

The camera is the Polaroid 20x24 View Camera, so named because of the twenty-by-twenty four inch picture it gives. The Polaroid Corporation developed it some decades ago and built five, which are housed in studios in New York, Los Angeles, and Europe for use by professional photographers.

Like Polaroid P/N 4x5 film, the 20x24 film gives a positive (below, left) and a negative (below, right).

The two materials are on separate rolls at the back of the camera. After exposure, electric motors pull each material through a set of rollers – much as laundry goes through the wringer on old fashioned washing machines – joining them, sensitive surface to sensitive surface.

At the rollers is a twenty-four-inch-wide pod of chemicals, which are squeezed out of a slit along the length of the pod.

Coating the two sensitive surfaces at once, these chemicals develop the negative and put colored pigment onto the positive material.

The materials come out of the rollers image to image. When they are separated, you have the positive image and its negative, both twenty-four inches high and twenty inches wide.

Unlike Polaroid P/N 4x5 film, the 20x24 negative cannot be printed from again. Each of Carey’s pictures is a unique non-replicable object.

Carey’s process comes from her discovery, in 1995, that one can over-ride the electric motor’s default shut-off at twenty-four inches and keep pulling the material out of the camera to any length one wishes, until the pod runs out of pigment.

She also discovered that the pigment is exhausted at the edges of the pod first—which explains the parabolic shape that dominates much of her current work: As the project continued she also discovered that by blocking parts of the pod’s mouth, by stopping and starting the motor, and by rolling the materials back into the camera and pulling them out again, she could make wide-ranging variations on that dominant form.

By putting images next to each other to make diptychs and triptychs,

she can make pictures much wider than the twenty-inch width of the material itself.

In Polaroid’s New York 20x24 Studio, Carey puts a sheet of foam core in front of the mammoth camera’s lens and roughly focuses the camera on a small area in the middle of the sheet. To the left and right of the camera are strobe lights with colored gels over the lamp housing,

At the moment of exposure the sheet is flooded with intensely bright colored light. Carey then pulls the positive and negative material out of the camera back, in one or some of the various ways described above.

An important thing for Carey is that the pictures–like all photographs—are made out of light, reflected fom a solid object in front of a lens—here, a piece of foam core flooded with colored light.

All manipulations after the exposure are the counterparts of the burning and dodging in a wet darkroom or the various operations of Photo Shop.

Perhaps the only photographically unique thing about Carey’s process is that the negative image is both beautiful and decorative and can be exhibited or hung as an aesthetic object in its own right.

When asked why she doesn’t either paint or make silk-screen images, Carey says that neither of these mediums begins with light and its effects on surfaces, or refers to light, or is the products of an instant of exposure involving light.

Citing the unpredictability of the results, she also says that neither painting nor silk screen has anything like photography’s relation to the unforeseen and unforeseeable results of exposing film to capture an image of a particular subject at a particular split second of its existence.

Besides, she adds, she loves photography: the darkroom, the chemicals, the use of light, surface, the tones, the relation to chance and everything else that makes it different from other art mediums.

4. A Brief Survey of Twentieth-Century “Straight” Photographs With Conventional Camera and Materials and that Approximate or Attain the Conditions of Abstract Art

I have been wondering about how photographs achieve or approximate the conditions of abstract art at least since the early 1980s, when the Photography Department of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, devoted four large exhibitions to the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget, who photographed Paris and its surrounding countryside from 1897 to 1927. Looking at a wall of photographs from across a gallery I saw pictures like these

Atget, Willows, 1935 Atget, The Marne, 1925-27

Atget, Chestnut Tree, 1910-15 Atget, Apple Tree, 1922-23

as bold compositions of large abstract forms of black and white.

Knowing that Atget’s pictures are naturalistic descriptions of reality kept me from thinking the notion of abstract photographs through. Thus I failed to see an obvious fact: that in photography, the shapes or forms of most things are abstract; that it is the details within the form’s contour lines that tell us that this form is a wine glass on a bar, that a building’s shadowy entrance way.

It stands to reason. When we photograph we are, in effect, abstracting forms from the shapes of things in the world as seen from specific points of view, and filling our rectangle with these forms so as to create a composition.

(That it was Atget’s late work that set this train of thought going is one indication of why Atget’s pictures are so strong and Atget himself considered one of the giants of the medium. “I don’t know,” Garry Winogrand once said, “if there’s such a thing as the greatest photographer in the history of the medium, but if there’s a greater one than Atget I can’t imagine what the pictures would look like.”)

Still, Atget’s compositions are tour-de-force organizations of images of things in the world, Part of their dazzling effect is in Atget’s ability to put so many pieces of the world together in such tight relationships that have a quality of all great art: the appearance of inevitability. It is as though each tree, above, and its surroundings, could have been put together in no other way.

I say “pieces” of the world because that is what compositions look like. On close inspection, each of the three Italian Renaissance masterpieces reproduced below

Fillipino Lippi Piero della Francesca Fillipino Lippi

reveals itself to have been built up of an extraordinary number of individual forms. Compare, for example, the Virgin Mary’s red undergarment in each picture. In each of Fillipino Lippi’s two works, the garment is really four individual pieces of red; in Piero’s, two. None of these ten red shapes resembles any of the others. When seen in isolation, they are all abstract rather than representational. So for the Christ child’s left arm in the painting on the left; so for his right elbow that on the right. So for the background details.

Yet in the painting, so strongly do these forms refer to things in life—a baby’s body, a red garment—that my calling them “pieces of the world” seems just. So does the image of compositions as “pieces of the world put together” into a whole that is also an image of life.

For a long time after the Museum of Modern Art’s four Atget exhibitions I paid little attention to what I had seen because, I think, I hadn’t seen it clearly enough.

Until then, what abstract photography meant to me was small bodies of work by a few photographers. The Laszlo Moholy-Nagy photogram, below, gives no clue to the identity of the objects Moholy placed on his negative before turning on the darkroom light:

Similarly, in this photogram by Man Ray the central object is obviously a shoe tree, but what are the several bright objects around it, giving an impression of a rib cage and the shoe tree as its spinal column?

At the time, I championed the tradition of straight photography that begins with the world and ends with images of it. Supporting this belief were a number of historical facts, such as Paul Strand’s efforts at abstraction in 1916, inspired by his exposure to European modernist and abstract painting. He got as far as these stunning and almost entirely abstract pictures of bowls (below, left) and a porch railing in bright sunlight (below, right).

Nonetheless, he thought abstract photography as such too removed from life, at least for him: a dead end. Yet he used aspects of abstraction in his photographs from then on. One sees them in pictures like those of rock formations and New York City architecture.

I admired photographers like Strand who used semi-abstract passages to enhance their pictures’ strengths and meanings, and showed us there was always more than one way of seeing; that the world was like an artist whose aesthetic differed from but was still compatible with ours.

Two notable examples are in Robert Frank’s 1957 masterpiece, The Americans. In each of the two photographs below, one taken at a Detroit automobile show, the other in downtown New Orleans:

both the top passages...

and the bottoms...

are at once abstract and representational.

These pictures are in the classic Western painting tradition of humankind on the earth, with their clear divisions into three horizontal bands, representing the earth, human society and the heavens, as in this painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau of ladies and gentlemen about to embark on a pilgrimage to the island of love,

and in myriad other paintings from the Renaissance up to the 1920s.

Frank’s abstract passages enhance his pictures’ poignancy and suggest their meanings. His passengers can be said to be on a journey across a dark, abstract earth that has no signs of nature, and under a sky filled with abstract and undecipherable symbols.

There are many twentieth-century photographs whose respective vantage points – like Paul Strand’s on the front porch – disorient the viewer from the subject in such a way as to create an image in which form far outweighs content. Not many of these pictures succeed. When they do it is because they stay close to life, so that the composition does not overwhelm or obliterate the living subject. A successful one is the picture to the right, of a river and a sailing boat seen from above, taken by Moholy-Nagy in the 1930s:

Also, there are a few “straight” twentieth-century photographs of subjects which are abstract to begin with. One of the most famous is this 1920 picture by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

It is called Dust Breeding and is a picture of a sheet of glass put under a bed to collect dust and taken out several days later and photographed from above, with no manipulation, but also with no indication of what it might be and, especially, of how large it is. This, together with the camera’s oblique angle to the object, gives the picture a certain likeness to aerial reconnaissance photographs such as the one below, from World War I,

and to this much later picture by the important Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli:

also taken from the air.

Abstract as they are, Giacomelli’s aerial pictures of fields always contain imagery connecting them to life. Here it is the trees at the top right, asserting the earth as a subject; in other pictures it is roads, distinguishable from the furrows in fields, or small farm buildings.

Pictures like the two above can be called semi-abstract. Once one considers them in this light, certain principles begin to emerge, ways by which we, with ordinary cameras and an interest in the world around us, can make pictures with abstract passages and/or semi-abstract properties.

Certain things are already obvious. Pictures become abstract when, like Dust Breeding, they lack visual clues that might tell us what the subject is, or how large, or small. Giacomelli’s pictures and the reconnaissance photographs reveal the importance of an extremely distant vantage point, Strand’s and Duchamp/Man Ray’s, of an extremely close one. Extremely oblique angles, as in Moholy’s picture of the sailboat, disorient us from the subject to reveal its abstract quality. Extreme brightness and extreme shadow, as in Atget’s pictures, also temporarily conceal the subject’s identity. And Robert Frank’s pictures stress the importance of having an eye for semi-abstract passages in the scene before us.

The Giacomelli picture, below, of winter branches against snow, shows us the importance of having an eye not only for abstraction but for the original line, the original composition.

5. Abstraction and Composition

Here is a photograph of a dusty window with a broken pane by Brett Weston, the son of the photographer Edward Weston.

As far as we can tell, this is a straight photograph that achieves its abstract properties entirely by purely photographic means, one of which is composition. The tracing, while underscoring the picture’s abstract properties, reveals something that we don’t notice at first glance: how the large black void merges with a strong diagonal black void at the picture’s left side to form a singular abstract shape of considerable strangeness..

Also, Weston placed this black void extremely close to the picture’s top and bottom edges. This placement, together with the void’s relation to the sides of the window frame, not only emphasizes the void’s abstract nature but also makes it the picture’s dominant form. Placed as it is in the frame, it determines the lesser but still sharp emphasis on all the other forms. The energy this black form seems to possess is a consequence not only of the forms expanding toward the edges of the frame along all four axes but also because the form stays dominant and stays abstract despite the challenge of so many smaller but strong light forms all around it.

The abstract shapes of blackness and their use in compositions was discovered in the 1850s by the French photographer Charles Negre, who photographed in Paris and the South of France. His compositions with shadows show us a great deal about the possibilities and limitations of semi-abstract pictures.

Here is one of his earliest works, a self-portrait in the courtyard of his Paris studio. To concentrate our study on abstraction, the tracing (along with all subsequent Negre tracings) shows only the shadows (but, here, omitting the windows, whose shapes –so familiar! -- are almost impossible to make abstract).

Even with the curve of Negre’s right leg as part of its contour line, the black shape to the figure’s left remains abstract.. The tracing also reveals how near to the left edge this shape is. In the print it seems much farther into the courtyard.

Even more difficult to identify are the shapes formed by the shadows in this Negre picture of a French cathedral

As for Negr’e picture of a market in the south of France (below), we could not tell from the shape of either the shadows or the bright areas that this was a crowded marketplace in deep shadow and bright sunlight.

Equally enigmatic are the dark forms in this picture of a standing woman in provincial France.

And this despite the fact that certain curves in the woman’s skirt suggest the human figure.

When the human figure is not involved with Negre’s shadows, shadows become abstract black voids. The tracings reveal them as dominant forms of their respective pictures, determining placement and relationships of other forms within the composition. In the picture below, taken at the cathedral of Arles, there are two pairs of dominant forms governing the composition: the forms of the women and those of the shadows.

But when the human figure is involved, it is difficult to see deep shadow as an abstract black void. Even the tracing of Negre’s picture of a candle seller by a Cathedral (below), a human figure is suggested just by virtue of the one dark oval form within the abstract black one.

But when the contour of human figure is also a contour of a form made of shadow, it is extremely difficult to see the shadow as abstract; it almost always seems to draw the figure, as in Negre’s pictures of a Parisian liquorice water vendor

or in this, of children listening to a Parisian organ grinder,

in which the contour lines of all three human figures make it difficult to see the large dark shadowy archway as anything but an architectural shape. However, in the picture below, of a man and a child giving the organ grinder money,

the oddness of the black form at the left almost overwhelms the obviously human forms of the contours of the man’s back and the girl’s foot and skirt hem.

Nonetheless, in these last pictures it is obvious that Negre, like the landscape photographers we studied in September, knew his first step was to see his scene in terms of its forms, to identify the dominant and major ones, and that he decided on compositions (the placement and relationships of all forms and objects) determined by both the abstract and the representational properties of his dominant forms.

For Negre, the path to abstraction was shadow. To the twentieth-century Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko, it was chiaroscuro plus disorienting camera angles, as in the two pictures below of streets and buildings, the first from below

the other from above:

At first glance, only the black window against the light gray wall tells us that this is a picture of a building. However, the disorientation is so extreme that when the picture is on its side or upside down, the window becomes a much weaker clue to the picture’s reality.

Part of the technique of making semi-abstract forms from such highly recognizable subjects, then, is to to diminish surface detail within the subject’s contour lines. Below is a reproduction of Rodchenko’s photograph of his mother on the telephone, from a vantage point equally disorienting as those above. The first tracing, which shows no detail within the woman’s form,

reveals how remote the form is from a contour drawing of a woman’s body. But by tracing only a few lines within this contour:

the tracing is immediately not an abstract at all. Instead it is a strange but nonetheless naturalistic description of a woman seen from above.

Just how powerfully naturalistic the interior details of one’s subject are, frustrating abstraction, is obvious in the Rodchenko picture, right, of a man looking up and gesturing toward the camera.

An even more disorienting and abstract view of this man comes when the picture is turned upside down.

But again, fill in the figure with only a few lines:

and as with the picture of Rodchenko’s mother on the phone, the human identity of this figure returns. There is no way one can read the tracing as even semi-abstract.

The challenge posed to abstraction by the human figure and other highly familiar things is again seen in photographs as widely dissimilar from each other as Roman Vishniac’s photograph of two people in the Warsaw ghetto on the eve of World War II

and Irving Penn’s fashion photograph, from the early 1950s:

As abstract as the dress in Penn’s picture is, it is not truly abstract until all vestiges of the woman wearing it are cropped out:

Similarly, the tracing does not become truly abstract until even the slightest reference to the human arm and hand is gone.

So strong, in fact, are all details of the human figure that when Vishniac’s picture is cropped to eliminate the heads and faces, just the small and schematic image of the woman’s hand, together with the drapery in both subjects’ clothing, identifies the cropped version as a picture of two people:

Whereas the tracing, cropped in the same place, is entirely abstract.

Similarly, Edward Weston’s photograph of his son Neal, which alludes as much to ancient Greek sculpture as to a living boy, is kept, as the tracing suggests, from being abstract by the smallest details: navel and nipples.

As I think the pictures below, paired with their respective tracings indicate, it is easier to make a photograph allude to abstraction than to make it approximate the conditions of abstract art. And again, the semi-abstract properties of a picture rest in part on the photographer’s ability to make strong and affecting forms using only the means of his medium.

In the prints below, all subjects seem to have abstract qualities. How strongly Elliot Erwitt’s picture frames, whose pictures we can’t see, resemble abstractions; but how clearly the lines are representational in the tracing. Indeed, some of the pictures below are more abstract in the print than in the tracing.

Elliot Erwitt

Joel Meyerowitz

Paul Outerbridge

Tina Modotti

One immediately perceives, I think, that one idea/observation of the Ray K. Metzker diptych, below, is about how two similar figures, seen together, seem to emphasize the abstract rather than the recognizable aspects of the human form. This becomes evident in the first tracing, which, again, follows only the contours of the forms. There, the woman’s figure seems more abstract than the man’s and thus leads us to perceive the man’s form as at least equally abstract and representational:

But again, once we draw details within the woman’s form, her figure becomes representational and the man’s figure becomes more abstract.

Throughout the history of photography there have been workers gifted with the two-fold ability to see abstractly and to know what a composition is. These include:

William Garnett, who, more than Giacomelli, perceived purely abstract compositions from high above the earth (below, left), and Aaron Siskind, who perceived them at extremely close distances from walls:

and Minor White and Manuel Alvarez Bravo,

Minor White Manuel Alvarez Bravo

who knew the importance of ambiguous, disorienting vantage points for abstraction and the crucial importance of light and shadow to create the illusion of solid objects in deep space, on the one hand, and, on the other, forms and patterns on a picture’s surface.

In 1952, Clarence John Laughlin knew much about the importance of any frame’s underlying grid. When, as in the picture to the right, he brought the grid up to the surface of the picture (this by emphasizing the vertical lines in the foreground’s mesh curtains, and the horizontal ones in the background’s windowsill),

he explored areas of abstraction similar to those explored by abstract painters. And painters are still following them today, as is attested by the recent works of the American painter Gordon Moore, which were exhibited this January in a New York gallery.

Coincidentally for this column, Moore’s dominant form is similar to the parabolic dominant forms of Ellen Carey. And even more forcefully than Laughlin, but less forcefully than, say, Brett Weston, Edward Weston, Minor White, or even Negre, Moore’s dominant abstract form determines the shape of the minor forms (and even their placement within the composition). For with its contour lines and its internal details, Moore’s tall oval form changes the grid’s equal rectangles into irregular forms; none of which is the same as any of the others.

In 1839, the very year in which the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot announced his discovery of photography, he made a photograph, right, of pine needles:

which anticipates much of the abstract and semi-abstract pictures we have been studying, to say nothing of abstract painting and sculpture since 1945.

It is not surprising to find abstract pictures so early in the nineteenth century. The possibility of an abstract visual art was first put forth in 1784 by the English landscape painter Alexander Cozzens. By the beginning of the nineteenth century artists in all mediums were discussing, proposing and predicting not only abstract pictures but abstract literature – novels without characters, settings, conversations, descriptions: only words. In 1837, two years before Talbot made the pine needles picture, the French novelist Honoré Balzac wrote a short tale which set the first appearance of abstract art in the early seventeenth century

As for Talbot’s sense of composition – the implication of a dominant abstract form by virtue of the way the pine needles clump and separate; the creation of a dominant form by hundreds of small strokes—this did not emerge in full force among painters until the late 1940s.

As for the importance of abstraction, Meyer Schapiro saw it correctly when he wrote that at the beginning of the twentieth century artists welcomed abstract form as a way of liberating themselves from tradition and to see and express the world in new ways. It is a road to new truths and individual liberty.

Ben Lifson, who teaches the history, theory and practice of photography at the graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of Hartford (CT), also conducts private photography tutorials on three continents. For more information please visit his website, For information about the University of Hartford's photography programs, please visit the website

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