… These photographs are as “factual” as images can be, as true to life, yet they lack any sense of temporal context.
Continuing through The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography by Lyle Rexer (2009):
… That photographs of nothing and photographs of so many common things — turbines, fountain pens, eyeglasses, factories — should coexist on an equal plane and often within a single artist’s portfolio is perhaps the defining paradox of modern art. It was a short step from the poetic language of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, for example, to the unbound, collaged performance of Ulysses, or, for that matter, from the mechanical motion study of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1913) to the Bottlerack (1914) and the idea of the Readymade.
[line break added] In photography, the paradox was more pronounced. As both Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy demonstrated in their different ways, the camera could record the world, either its appearances or its physical events, with the utmost fidelity yet render it unfamiliar by seeing as no set of human eyes could.
… A photography dictated by an invisible unconscious, uncoupled from familiar significations or combinations of imagery, is necessarily “abstract,” its images never fully disclosable even if formally perspicuous. It substitutes a less specific field of response and interpretation for a literally depicted object. It is a magical substitution that takes place only with photographs, as they loosen their situational and historical moorings and become objets trouvés.
[line break added] Searching for the oddness of the ordinary, for sources of creative liberation beyond or below conventionalized, rationalized, historicized individual consciousness, the Surrealists adopted the nearly anonymous photographs of Eugène Atget as one model. Introduced to them by Man Ray and extolled by the poet Robert Desnos, Atget’s deadpan catalog of a Paris already disappearing — a Paris of narrow alleys, discolored monuments, and silent parks, nearly all devoid of human presence — turned conventional images into empty signifiers by removing them from the temporal flux and currency of modern Paris, opening them to nostalgic projection and incommunicable presentiments.
[line break added] These photographs are as “factual” as images can be, as true to life, yet they lack any sense of temporal context. They do not represent moments seized but places emptied of time, narrative, and hence, meaning itself. They seem taken by no one and turn the city into a phantom, something distant, iconic, unrecognizable and new-old.
All photographs are capable of provoking reveries, but with the Surrealists’ adoption of Atget, the central role of photography suddenly shifted to the subversion of its own premise of visuality, to reveal, as painting never convincingly could, the dominant presence of psyche in the experience of everyday life.
[line break added] Painting might provide images for psychic events, referring primarily to the visual repertoire of dreams, but only photography could provoke those experiences. It also further diminished the role of the artist’s controlling hand, shifted the artistic focus to the mind of the artist, and bestowed on the viewer a new power of recognition.