… Abstract photographs may record or register but do not testify or bear witness except to their own presentness … They are not free but they are unburdened.
Final post from The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography by Lyle Rexer (2009):
… What was the orthodoxy and what the apostasy? Against whom did the early prophets of this period grumble, like William Blake against Johann Lavater, “There is no natural religion!” The church of photography resided in a place — New York City — and a group of institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, MoMA organized some groundbreaking exhibitions of unorthodox work, including its foray into abstraction, but the “church” nevertheless professed a broadly documentary catechism for photography.
[line break added] The trinity of camera-photographer-world was never blasphemed — no trick photography, no deliberate distortions, no violating the negative, no scrawled narratives to prop up the pictures — and the contract between representation and expression, always under negotiation in photography, was never to be broken.
… The inaugural moment of contemporary photographic-inflected fine art is probably Robert Rauschenberg’s “combine” paintings from the 1950s and early ’60s, works that imported photography and other material into the realm of painting. The impact of this importation on painting is well documented. It forms part of the catechism of Pop art, from Any Warhol and David Hockney to Claes Oldenburg. But the impact on photography was even more profound.
[line break added] For decades, modern photographers had asserted the aesthetic status of the medium and attempted to define it more rigorously as a union of expression and denotative elements. In Rauschenberg’s work, as in Warhol’s, photography was demoted to the status of a readymade, reduced to an anonymous common denominator, just one form of information among others, deprived of the conventional marks of style or individual subjectivity.
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… Far from being the terminus ad quem of photography, abstract images represent its apotheosis. The guarantee of a photograph is not its image, its representation, so easily conflated with its subject; it is its surface, its utter two-dimensionality, a kind of limiting condition containing the promise of whatever it is we get from a photograph, of a photographic experience. … The abstract photograph signifies not the given but the possible. And in an image-choked world, perhaps it signifies a necessary antidote for a growing numbness, an image-blindness.
… The suspension of signifiers and the withdrawal of subjects foregrounds photography’s primary claim on our imaginative lives today, not as politics but as poetry. No image, no matter how contrived, can expose the content of an obscure contemporary reality without extensive commentary. But photographs can do something that may be even more valuable. They can mediate a poetic response to the world, a response that acknowledges the real beyond mere instrumentality.
[line break added] A few artists are attempting to reintegrate the seemingly opposed senses of photography — the transcriptive and metaphoric — to come out the other side of abstraction. they seek to display the constant interplay in all images of what is disclosed and what is withheld, what can be shown and what can only be imagined.
… The most conventional of photographs lead double lives, functioning one way at their creation (and for some unspecified length of time while they remain aides-mémoires) and another when they are fully untethered from their originating worlds. Pointing at first toward a future in which they will keep some image of a thing, situation, or person alive, they necessarily become emblems of death, pointing backward to what no longer is. They testify.
Abstract photographs may record or register but do not testify or bear witness except to their own presentness, which has its own poignancy. They exist fully within the consciousness of photography’s compromised truth — compromised in the sense that the object retains its ambiguity, never quite whole and independent, never lapsing into transparency, hovering between formality and contingency.
[line break added] They reaffirm photography’s objectivity without recourse to factitious representations. They are not free but they are unburdened. They allow for chance without the anxieties of an illusionary formal control. They expand photography’s capacity for representing the beautiful by creating occasions for beauty’s recognition within us.