Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Philip Hyde, Straight Photography, Documentary and Abstraction
Some contemporary photographers believe that straight photography is documentary and limited to showing “reality” exactly as it might be seen on an ordinary day as you or I walk by it. A few photographers even try to “brand” themselves natural or straight photographers by sticking to realism and realistic portrayals of their subject. See photographer Guy Tal’s rant against this tendency, “No Lesser An Art.” The realism-only interpretation of straight photography is narrow and defeats the original purpose as envisioned by straight photography’s pioneers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston.
The objective of the photography of Paul Strand for example was not to appear “real” or to depict “reality.” Conversely, Paul Strand’s photography, without any manipulation, showed ordinary objects in a way that caused them to transcend reality.
The website, Ted’s Photographics, describes the work of Paul Strand:
Paul Strand fused together the two seemingly contradictory approaches of documentary and abstraction. For years he only produced contact prints, his pictures were pure, direct and devoid of trickery. His work represented the final break with the traditional concepts of photographic subject matter.
Paul Strand was both the “Father of Abstract Photography” and the “Father of Straight Photography.” Recently photographer Paul Grecian wrote a thought-provoking blog post, “Abstract? It’s All Abstract…” He said that all photographs are abstract because they are different than the objects they depict. While this may be true, a comment by Marty Golin argued that the reverse is also true, that photography is all “reality.” An interesting discussion developed.
Today some photography intentionally, some unintentionally, is going toward Pictorialism, often taking on aspects of the worst of that genre, sometimes exhibiting the best it offered. In some instances creative expression beyond and after the point of capture can be quite freeing. Extraordinary new types of work are developing. Straight photography has held back some photographers, they feel. With the advent of Photoshop and image alteration, combination, stitching, shifts in focus, and many other special effects or manipulations of color, the creative juices are flowing again. To read more on advanced Photoshop techniques see the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Photoshop For Pros.” On the other hand, some photographers today take subject matter that could potentially be transcendent and render it ordinary or even cliché through photographer-imposed affectations and stylization.
Alfred Stieglitz devoted the last issue ever published of his magazine Camera Work to Paul Strand. In Camera Work, Alfred Stieglitz described what constitutes an important contribution to photography:
In the history of photography there are but few photographers who, from the point of view of expression, have really done work of any importance. And by importance we mean work that has some relatively lasting quality, that element which gives all art its real significance….Paul Strand has added something to what has gone before. The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any “ism”; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves.
In Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960, Helmut Gernsheim wrote:
Paul Strand brought a new vision to photography, discovering in the most ordinary objects significant forms full of aesthetic appeal. Nearly all of his pictures broke new ground both in subject matter and in its presentation…. “Abstract Pattern Made by Bowls” and other experiments in abstraction were the result of Strand’s seeing at “Gallery 291” the work of Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and others. [Modernist Abstract Impressionists.]
Paul Strand himself explained this process:
I was trying to apply their then strange abstract principles to photography in order to understand them. Once understanding what the aesthetic elements of a picture were, I tried to bring this knowledge to objective reality in the “White Fence”, the “Viaduct” and other New York photographs…. Subject matter all around me seemed inexhaustible….Yet what makes these photographs is their objectivity. This objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation. The photographer’s problem is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely here that honesty no less than intensity of vision is the pre-requisite of a living expression. The fullest realization of this is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation, through the use of straight photographic methods.
Abstraction, more than a technique is the result of selecting a composition that removes the objects in the frame from their context as found in “reality” and changes their nature in the photograph. Another one of the great abstract photographers was Brett Weston. Read more about Brett Weston’s influence in the blog post, “The Hidden Brett Weston.” Webster’s Third International Dictionary Unabridged defines abstract as, “Expressing a property, quality, attribute, or relation viewed apart from the other characteristics inherent in or constituting an object; of a fine art: presenting or possessing schematic or generalized form frequently suggested by and having obscure resemblance to natural appearances through an ordering of pictorial or sculptural elements.” Thus, photographing a field of corn and defocusing the image does not make the photograph abstract, it merely makes it fuzzy. Photographing a corn leaf in such a way that it takes on separate characteristics from those typically associated with corn, is abstract photography.
Do you agree or disagree? What do you feel makes a photograph abstract? Are you drawn more to straight photography, Pictorialism or something in-between?