I was, to my own surprise, prompted to think about photography and its relationship to abstract art by a visit to the Ansel Adams exhibition, Photography from the Mountains to the Sea at the National Maritime Museum, London (ending 28th April). Adams is a giant of landscape photography, and rightly celebrated for his black-and-white images of the American West and Southwest, in particular Yosemite Valley, which he depicted as a vertiginous and romantic wilderness, spectacular and awe-inspiring.
I don’t normally have much time for photographs, and I certainly don’t care for the new breed of art photography that has come to the fore in a lot of galleries of late. In fact, given the choice, I’d rather have on my wall a very mediocre painting in preference to a very good photograph. Adams took some wonderful pictures, but I got through the whole show pretty quickly, and then found myself admiring examples from the genre of second rate marine paintings in the rest of the museum – prizing their ‘made’ quality, the fact that everything in a painting has to be built from nothing, by hand, and with a distinct sensibility. How quaint.
That aside, the Adams photographs seemed to me to fall into three categories. There were firstly the half-dozen or so dazzling images of mountains, clouds and water, where each individual image, despite its complexity of light and texture and tonal depiction of space, was, so to speak, ‘all of a piece’. In other words, you couldn’t really separate the image from what it depicted spatially, despite those spaces often being monumental. In these pictures Adams demonstrated a great ‘eye’ for capturing the moment of most heightened visual intensity, complementing his determination to put himself into some pretty far-flung places as and when the light and conditions were just right.
Secondly, there were photographs of a much less spectacular nature, which simply and unostentatiously documented a place and a time; nevertheless interesting, not so much for and of themselves as for the topographical subjects they captured.
And thirdly were the abstract ones; these were the ones I really disliked.
These were the ones which relied upon a now over-familiar abstract aesthetics, where you couldn’t really tell what it was you were looking at. They were perhaps radical at the time – close-ups of rocks and pebbles, lichen, plant material, light dappling on water, silhouetted reeds like pen-strokes reflected on the still surface of a lake – you know what I mean. You know, because we’ve all done it, on our hols; taken close-ups of rock-pools on the tide-line etc., etc. They are clichés now; abstract compositions. Boring. These were the ones that reminded me of abstract painting, and why it so often fails in a comparison with figurative painting.
I’m bored of abstract paintings composed of circles and dots and stripes and vague splodges; paintings made of shapes, patterns or textures; paintings where you also can’t tell what you’re looking at, or why. I’m bored with the sort of abstraction that veers this far away from the specific; that calls itself abstract because of its generalities and equivocation. I need to know exactly what I’m looking at (I don’t mean a named object), even though it is abstract. Perhaps I need to know even more because it is abstract.
I need to look at something that is ambitiously but unambiguously spatial, and very particular about it; rather like, in fact, the first category of photographs by Adams, the ones where content and form were indistinguishable. This is not an argument for figurative art; this is an argument for breaking out of the easy-going, moribund, over-composed two-dimensional space that almost all abstract painting currently lives and dies by. This is an argument for pushing deeper into abstract space, opening it out in all the complexity, particularity and exactitude of its visual relationships; like a magnificent landscape laid out to sight, unfolded and lucid. If it is done in painting rather than in photography it will be all the greater for it. Far greater, in fact.