Abstract Critical

Ansel Adams and Abstraction

Written by Robin Greenwood

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.


  1. Janet Forbes said…

    Having ventured in both realms (photographic and painting/drawing) and having met and studied with Ansel Adams, I think I can comment on this in an informed way. First, one must understand the history in which Ansel was a character in. Up until just before Ansel’s time, photography had tried to emulate art—i.e. photographers were scratching negatives, deliberately smearing the image and so forth, all in the name of making photography more accepted as an art form. Ansel and his mentors (Paul Strand, Edward Weston as well as others) were all after the goal of using the camera in its most strictest terms to capture an image with as little manipulation (other than standard darkroom techniques) so that photography could be seen as an art form on its own merits–not in how it was manipulated.

    However, having said that—I know that Ansel used great skill in the darkroom to bring out the tonal qualities that may not have been captured in the original negative. I also know that he appreciated art work that was not so strict and even envisioned that some day someone might take one of his negatives and create something totally different in the final print. In his day, the work he and others of that genre did was exciting and new and it pushed the old boundaries. Likewise when all the early abstract artists were creating their visions—it was all new and exciting. And it pushed boundaries.

    Today—whether it’s Jackson Polluck, or Ansel Adams, their work might seem boring because—what the heck—of course, we’re no longer in that place—we’ve moved on from there. But no matter how it might seem common place, I think we need to honor and respect those who pushed the boundaries before us and recognize them for the pioneering work that they did.

    So that would be my first point. My second point is quite simple. The comparison of photography and painting, abstract art and figurative is like comparing apples and oranges; they taste different, they look different, they smell different. We might be drawn more to one over the other, but that doesn’t make them any less fruit. And simply because one is drawn more to a certain genre over another genre doesn’t make any of it less artistic. Does it move us?—I could site many photographs that have moved millions of people and I could site paintings that have moved millions of people. And then there’s always Duchamp’s Toilet—”It’s art because I call it art.” And so the discussion about ‘What is Art’ continues. And I suspect that 100 years from now artists will look back and say how limited our visions were.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Maybe… My point was simple too – that our vision of painting (and sculpture) need not be limited by an addiction to images. No doubt great photographers like Adams thought so too, as he strove to extract meaning from what he saw in the natural world. But in my (biased) opinion, comparing photography to painting is like comparing an apple to a three-course meal. There is no law that says all art-forms are equal in what they can aspire to and achieve. There are, of course, good and bad apples and good and bad three-course meals; but the best of Adams would not compare with the best of any number of great painters…

      …and yet, to extend the point further, perhaps to absurdity, it ought to be said that there are any number of contemporary abstract painters who seem content with providing only a repetitive and unfulfilling ‘tasting menu’. I’d rather have an apple.

  2. Zino Pece said…

    Either Robin Greenwood knows very little about photography or he chooses to ignore the fact that Adams along with numerous other photographers very much used their hands and applied great sensibility to their work. Adams invented the Zone System which allows for control over tonality all the way from white, through many greys and to black. This is just at the camera stage, not to mention the use of different films, chemicals, papers and great darkroom skills. How is a marine painting built from nothing? Doesn’t a representational painter start by observing a subject a does a photographer. I agree with Greenwood on many things, but this essay is just so pompous and bias.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Pompous! Moi!!! And bias [sic] too!

      I know don’t know too much about photography, but I know enough to understand and agree that there is a lot of skill/craft/art in the production of images as good as Adams produced. But that’s all. If you are saying I am biased in favour of painting and against photography, I am indeed.

      No matter how good the photograph, it is only an image. The only way photography can compete or compare with painting is if the painting is in reproduction, thereby also becoming an image. I know this is how we view the world we live in, on the terms demanded by images, which are a great leveller. But painting in the real can be much greater than an image; it can be a revelatory encounter with a physical fact of a kind and to a degree that is unlikely to be matched by photography.

      • Zino Pece said…

        I agree that standards in visual art are not determined by scoring points based on time spent making the work, skill,craft etc. What looks best and what moves us is what counts. At the top end, painting is stronger than photography, which simply cannot compete in terms of colour and tactility, but photography is underrated. It’s reproducible nature, does not render it inferior. As with certain music, it accepts and exploits the fact that it can be duplicated without the loss of quality. A photograph looks good in a book/on screen and is less of a revelation when you see it in the flesh, but a real print is not merely an image. Off course there are many factors in reprinting that can be detrimental, but a good print is not a replica.