Here are three ways to make an abstract photograph, courtesy of the enormous Shape of Light show at Tate Modern. Take a picture of a slab of concrete in crazy closeup. Photograph beer bottle caps arranged on a dark surface so they resemble an array of shining dots. Crouch at the foot of some very tall trees and point your lens directly upwards, so that the uppermost leaves appear like dark smudges against a pale expanse. Work only, and always, in black and white.
So far, this is what might be called the alienation approach, which seems remarkably similar to the classic “guess the mystery object” quiz, in which some household utensil such as an egg whisk is colossally enlarged or shot from an unfamiliar angle. Thus what seems to be a gleaming abstract sculpture is, in fact, a bare thigh shot by Bill Brandt from below. That blizzard of sci-fi circles hurtling towards you from outer space in Peter Keetman’s photograph turns out to be dozens of steel pipes photographed end-on. And Brett Weston’s delicate web of branches, as fine as a Japanese watercolour, is actually a closeup of cracks in dry mud.
Window panes, roof tiles, steel struts, elaborate urban graffiti: all are ready, if obvious, sources for the photographer aiming to find the abstract in the figurative. So is almost anything that comes in multiples: grooves on an LP, towers of glass tiles, sheaves of drainpipes, crisscrossing wires, puddles on a rainy day. You can probably imagine all this without even seeing the respective images, which is at least one problem with this interminable exhibition.
Another is the project. This looks clear enough on paper – the first British show to explore the relationship between abstraction in painting and photography – but turns out to be the opposite in practice. The opening gallery looks promising, with paintings by Kandinsky, Braque and Wyndham Lewis alongside surprisingly craven photographic imitations. Pierre Dubreuil attempts a cubist photograph by scattering copies of the same shot of a train all over the floor, then calling this chaotic heap Picasso Interpretation. Alvin Langdon Coburn tries to reprise vorticism with his so-called Vortograph, working up a kaleidoscopic image using crudely conspicuous mirrors. Marta Hoepffner’s collage, made by placing stencils on photographic paper and then exposing them to light, is no more than a weak pastiche of early painterly abstraction. The giveaway is in the title: Homage to Kandinsky.
But painting rapidly disappears after this, except where the curators have for some misguided reason decided to include a single canvas – by Juan Miró, or Jackson Pollock, or Bridget Riley – among dozens of photographs that want to look exactly like it. Leaving aside the naked plagiarism, the paintings knock every other image off the wall.
There are arguments to be had about the definition of abstraction from the start. Is Edward Steichen’s exquisite sepia photograph of brick buildings in New York, circa 1922, in any meaningful sense abstract? Or Paul Strand’s 1916 china bowls? Or Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 sequence of black balconies, photographed from far below soaring up the image? They all put light, form and composition first, but so does many a pictorial photograph from almost a century ago.
We might say that Margaret Bourke-White’s fabulous shot of the NBC transmission tower, look-ing up through its intricate metal structures, looks a bit abstract; but only because of its insistent geometry, which belongs to the tower in any case. And what about Alfred Stieglitz’s mackerel skies from 1927? Clouds, whether painted by Constable or photographed by Stieglitz, may seem inherently abstract, atmospheric phenomena describing nothing but themselves. But of course they can look very like a camel, as Hamlet says. And what’s more, Stieglitz’s Equivalents, as he called them, are very clearly images of clouds and nothing but. He spoke of them as an objective correlative for his state of mind; they are surely more romantic than abstract.
But hold on to these early photographs, so potent and beautiful. For what follows is a tide of academic exercises, science projects, technical and visual experiments, with only the occasional triumph and a quite startling degree of repetition. The curators can’t show you one shot of a stairwell from down below – there have to be two or three; they can’t give you one textile closeup – they have to give you tapestry, corduroy, knitting, fishnet, and so on and on. This is counterproductive, undermining the originality of almost every photograph and throwing the emphasis straight back on figuration.
Shape of Light takes an ardent interest in method; the chemigram, for instance, made without a camera, in full light, by manipulating chemicals on photographic paper. The ideal artist to represent the chemigram would surely have been August Strindberg, writer-painter-photographer, whose attempts to capture the night sky are among the most beautiful abstract images ever made. But he’s not here. Or the luminogram, made by directing light on photosensitive paper. The great Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy would have been the man, but he is here for bird’s-eye views of the modern city. Instead, you get endless spots, dots, triangles, loops, sparkler-twirls and squiggles.
Stencils, collages, multiple exposures, distressed negatives, photographs that record the change of light in the darkroom, cut-outs, collotypes, E-ink images: how they are made is too often more interesting than the images themselves. And as the show builds to a long sequence of conceptual photographs from the past 30 years, interrogating the nature and status of photography, and so forth, it is significant that by far the most visually arresting images – in which invisible radioactivity is rendered eerily visible – are by a painter, Sigmar Polke.
What is abstraction: that is the underlying question. With painting, there are so many answers, from suprematism, constructivism and cubism to abstract expressionism, op art and minimalism onwards to Frank Stella, Cy Twombly and Howard Hodgkin. With photography, at least according to this exhibition, the answer is so often technical process. Of course there are some remarkable images here; how could there not be, given the presence of Brassaï, Steichen, Kertész and Man Ray (although not, alas, his egg whisk)? But the show treats even their works as little more than examples. And so it goes on, a glum trudge through gallery after gallery of instances by the hundred, until the eye ceases to take them in, rebelling against the visual boredom.