The rise and rise of abstract photography


Christian Marclay, Allover (Genesis, Travis Tritt, and others) 2008

Have you noticed how much abstract photography is out there these days. Not so long ago it was a very marginal category, an interesting but barely explored region. Today it’s in the vanguard of the avant-garde, an urgent issue for what is usually taken to be a representational medium.

It’s interesting to see how the abstract idea works in photography. Unlike painting, in photography you can’t really apply the lines and forms by hand, deliberately placing brushstrokes exactly where you want colours and lines to appear. Think of Kandinsky and Malevich, the two Russians who invented abstract art. In photography, you capture what is already there and try to make formal sense out of it by camera position and placement within the frame.

Well, that’s what I originally thought, but some contemporary photographic artists are challenging that notion.

The Christian Marclay cyanotype above resembles a Jackson Pollock drip painting but it’s not made of paint but audio cassette tape. “Marclay unwound the spools of old cassette tapes and proceeded to “draw” with the reams of tape. Marclay creates a labyrinth of lines, all tracing a distinct musical history that becomes abstracted on paper.”  It’s displayed in the MoMA exhibition A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio.


The recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography was called What is a Photograph? and it took on this growing phenomenon of abstract photography, amongst other challenging modes. These three artists caught my attention.

Alison Rossiter

Alison Rossiter,  Kilborn Acme Kruxo, exact expiration date unknown, ca. 1940s, processed in 2013 

Alison Rossiter finds very old packets of photographic paper on ebay and in markets, some are 100 years old. She applies developer locally, ie not by submerging the paper, and the results are beautiful abstracts with antique tones and interesting flaws caused by their age. Some resemble landscapes.

Maco Breuer

Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1228), 2012. Chromogenic Paper, burned  

Marco Breuer uses C-type (chromogenic) colour paper and tortures it by scratching, burning and sanding. The results are simple but rather pretty abstracts.


Mariah Robertson, 154, 2014

Mariah Robertson has the most extreme technique, both physically difficult and potentially hazardous. She uses rolls of chromogenic paper in her Brooklyn darkroom. Zipped up in a biohazard suit and with an oxygen mask she creates photogram and light effects which she processes through a machine into extremely long colour prints. They are  so long that in the gallery they have to be hung in loops from the ceiling and coiled on the floor. 

See this fascinating video of Robertson at work



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