Second Nature: Abstract Photography Then and Now

“It is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye”

– Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography (1929)


Abstract photography challenges our popular view of photography as an objective image of reality by reasserting its constructed nature. In his essay on the history of photography, Walter Benjamin articulates photography’s second nature as its inherent ability to detach and abstract the visible from the real. Non-representational photography lives in this contested middle ground between material reality and photographic illusion – fact and fiction – first and second natures. Today, anyone who has a cell phone can take and send digital images instantaneously. In response to this ‘snapshot’ culture, many artists are returning to the study of photography’s underlying properties to combat digital image fatigue. Second Nature looks at this embrace of the highly fabricated image as a return to an earlier time in photography’s history. As such, this exhibition takes up the subject of abstract photography through a temporal pairing – presenting the scientific and expressionistic experimentation of photography in the first half of the 20th century from the museum’s collection with explorations of the medium today.

Freed from its duty to represent, abstract photography continues to be a catchall genre for the blending of mediums and disciplines. It is an arena to test photography. By intermixing works from deCordova’s collection by Gyorgy Kepes, Harold Edgerton, and Aaron Siskind from the 1930s-1950s, with works by photographers practicing today including Eileen Quinlan, Arthur Ou, and Yamini Nayar, Second Nature focuses on the continual probing and questioning of the medium and conventions of picture-making that complicate our understanding of photography. The artists in Second Nature grow the ever expanding field of photography by revisiting themes of hyperrealism, constructivism, and the materiality of time through light.

Since the rise of digital photography in the 1990s there has been a reactionary and renewed interest among artists to return to the “slow” techniques of analog photography. Artists are finding their way back into the darkroom, working in low-tech and labor intensive processes that include camera-less photograms, solarized printing, and chemical cyanotypes. This emphasis on photographic process as subject – photography about photography – foregrounds the debate on the medium’s tie to representation. In their return to the early days of photography, many contemporary photographers build from the same lines of inquiry that absorbed scientists and artists in the early part of the 20th century, but now armed with a conceptual undergirding, propose alternate modes of thinking about and framing pictured abstractions.

Mel Bochner’s Photography Before the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2011) illustrates this conceptual repositioning. In the 1960s Bochner began to take notes on the “misunderstandings” of photography through literature, writing particularly telling quotes on 3 x 5 notecards. Decades later Bochner photographed one of these cards, a quote from Encyclopedia Britannica that reads, “Photography cannot record abstract ideas” and printed the negative in six different pre-20th century photographic processes: albumen, platinotype, collodion–chloride, gelatin, salt, and cyanotype. Taking up Walter Benjamin’s critical essay, “Art in the age of mechanical reproduction” that discussed the destruction of any “authentic” or “original” artwork by modernity, Bochner’s hand printed multiples sardonically question photography’s ability to represent the real or the “authentic”, through history and today. Recognized as one of Conceptual art’s pioneers, Bochner was one of the first artists to make written language the basis of his work. In a return to his 50-year-old “misunderstandings” project, Bochner circles back to his initial investigations of photography and linguistics, revisiting photography’s capacity to communicate.

Bochner is just one among many artists working then and now, who have made the questioning of photography – its mechanical roots and potentiality to transcend the pictorial –  the heart of their study. This exhibition is not intended to be a survey of abstract photography, but rather a focused study of art being made today that revisits and continues some of the themes and creative explorations of early 20th-century photography. The tracing of this lineage, made evident through historical juxtapositions, will overlay a contemporary lens with which to interpret our modern predecessors and bring new attention and scholarship to the museum’s photography collection.

Studio still-lifes by Eileen Quinlan and Yamini Nayar will be seen alongside Kepes’s constructivist photograms, exposure studies by Sharon Harper and Bryan Graf will be paired with Edgerton’s stroboscopic experiments, while Siskind’s expressionistic cityscapes will find new company alongside Isaac Layman’s psychologically charged domestic portraits. The exhibition will also feature artists working in film and video, ranging from avant-garde experimental filmmakers from the 1950s to today. Artists under consideration include: Anthony Pearson, Arthur Ou, Eileen Quinlan, Hugh Scott-Douglas, Yamini Nayar, Barbara Kasten, Isaac Layman, Alejandra Laviada, Meggan Gould, Luke Stettner, Mel Bochner, Jennifer West, Sara VanDerBeek, Stan Brakhage, Mariah Robertson, Julia Hechtman, Gareth Long, Caleb Charland, Bryan Graf, Cree Bruins, Matt Gamber, Aspen Mays, Greg Hayes, Daniel Phillips, and Daniel Lefcourt. Second Nature will take place in the Dewey Family Gallery, the Catherine S. England Photo Study Space, the Media Gallery, and in the second floor arcade gallery.

May 26, 2012 – Apr 21, 2013

Organized by Lexi Lee Sullivan, Assistant Curator, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA