‘Shape of Light’ at the Tate Modern

The exhibition ‘Shape of Light’ (at Tate Modern until 14 October) describes itself as ‘100 years of photography and abstract art’.

As expected, this is an exhibition showing abstract photographic images in conjunction with abstract art in other media. The pleasant surprise was the extent to which the photographic work dominated; the other works are clearly there to put the photography into context. For instance, a group of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1917 ‘Vortographs’ are displayed with Wyndham Lewis’ ‘Workshop’ (c1914-15)

and Theo van Doesburg’s ‘Counter-Composition VI’ (1925) is hung in the ‘New Visions’ gallery together with geometric perspectives from Alexandr Rodchenko, Lazlo Moholy-Nagi and Margaret Bourke-White (whose 1934 ‘NBC Transmission Tower’ is below)

The exhibition is mounted across twelve gallery spaces, each with its own theme. For instance, ‘New Visions’, referred to above, in gallery 3 shows the use of the smaller hand-held cameras from the 1920s to explore different way of looking at the world through tricks of scale, perspective etc. ‘Drawing with Light’ (gallery 6) juxtaposes kinetic studies (luminograms) and oscilloscope traces against a Jackson Pollock work, which is arguably a way of doing the same thing through a human agency. Gallery 10, ‘Optical Effects’ shows parallels between cameraless geometric forms and 1960s Op Art in two and three dimensions.


I have made a personal classification into camera-based and cameraless images, both categories breaking down further. Camera-based abstractions are either made in-camera by use of unconventional equipment (e.g. vortographs) perspective, scale or extraction (Ansel Adams preferred to describe his abstract landscapes as ‘extracts’) or in post-production by enlarger tricks or physical copying, pasting and duplicating. I divided the cameraless images into photograms and ‘the rest’. Photograms share an indexical quality with photographs, whereas images such as those created by painting chemicals onto photographic paper, or reverse-engineering digital file structures have more in common with painting (building up an image from a blank sheet). On a subjective level, I was better able to appreciate the more indexical images, starting with a view of reality and extrapolating from it.

The catalogue (cover below) can be read as a stand-alone book and is differently arranged. It is semi-chronological in four sections (1910-1940, 1940-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980-now), each with a major essay dealing in some way with the abstract art photography of its period. The images are also arranged by period, rather than thematically, telling a different (if equally valid) story. It also gives a useful glossary of techniques, missing from the exhibition itself.

Book 004

Overall, I found myself with a similar overall impression to the Tate Britain conceptual art exhibition in 2016. I was partly in admiration of the imaginations that can conceive these images, and partly looking at the images to see how the conjuring trick was worked.


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