Shape of Things to Come: Tate Modern Abstract Photography – Edward Lucie-Smith

Tate Modern’s new show Shape of Light has already received negative reviews from The Independent, The Times and The Sunday Times. Only The Guardian and The Telegraph liked it, although the latter praised it quite ambiguously:

“The work is magnificent, but the question that pursued it and continued to hover – the question of whether or not [photography] should be considered art – is one of the less imaginative ways to think about it. Rather to my surprise, I find myself very close to agreeing with this verdict.

Obviously, conservatives don’t see it as purely something that involves looking at the world through a lens – ELS

Earlier in her article, Telegraph critic Gaby Wood comments on how photography must have struggled, and perhaps even now struggling, with the perception that this is a technological breakthrough:

“This exhibition. she said, “seems to be a brother to the one in the National Portrait Gallery [Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography], in which 19th century photographers are shown seeking status. “

Tate Modern light form

At the Tate Modern show, some practical difficulties are evident. For a long way in the exhibition, there is a lack of color and a lack of scale. The painting could be as large as she wanted. It took photography a long time to reach a major scale, and when it did, it didn’t do it in galleries but on billboards. Bastard pop art photography. To adapt a famous political saying, he “caught the advertisers bathing and stole their clothes”. Even big’n figurative, concerning the seriously contemplated photograph, took a while to arrive. Large-scale abstract color photography, as shown in the exhibition, took even longer to take hold. She had to fight against an elitist perception that “fine art photography” could only exist in black and white. Everything else, as far as the photographic elite was concerned, was populist hogwash. The Tate show illustrates these difficulties without, I fully suspect, the intention of doing so.

A bigger problem, which gets more serious as the show progresses, is the lack of any consistent sense of what photography is now. Obviously, the Conservatives do not see it as purely something that involves looking at the world through a lens. The definition of what is and is not a photograph has therefore been pushed to the breaking point, and perhaps even beyond. Photography without a camera was born at least in the mid-1920s. Lightweight, light-sensitive paper is sufficient. Today, images, regardless of their origin, can be altered, enhanced and distorted in the computer, until they completely take leave of what can be seen in the real world using ‘one eye.

Tate Modern light form

Tate Modern light form

In this sense, the barriers between what can be defined as photographic, or not photographic, have completely disappeared.

The problem here, for me at least. Do the strictly non-photographic images in the latter sections of the show often strike me as flat, in every sense of the word, and boring to watch. Does it excite me to know that Sigmar Polke’s (1992) Uranium Green series was made from this radioactive material? Not really. Do I find the random shapes generated in this way interesting? No, I don’t.

The really interesting things about the exhibit – and it’s interesting for long periods of time despite what I’ve said here – are the tensions between what we know to be real and what happens to that reality between hands of a talented and imaginative photographer. In the first stages of the show, the hanging is punctuated by paintings by famous modernist artists – Arp, Miro, Mondrian. The goal seems to have been not only to suggest similarities, but to punctuate long stretches of things potentially boring to the uninitiated. At first glance, these paintings seem to face the small black and white images they accompany. Gradually, however, we realize that these modest, colorless images have special qualities of their own. They don’t exist in a separate sphere, like paintings do. They are in conversation with things experienced in the real world that have been skillfully and often skillfully altered to produce what is seen. In turn, we enter into conversation with these images from which the paintings are excluded.

Words / Photos: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2018

Visit Shape of Light here

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