Book Review: Shape of Light

  By John Veldhoen

There are at least two dictums describing how we know what we know, and how we communicate that knowledge. The first could be summed up as empirical, housed by the phrase “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”,  and the other is idealist, and drawing from another well, it goes that “we know more than what we can say”. The first is a critique of evidence, and is propositional in nature, the second is personal, and does not necessitate facts, and whatever it produces as knowledge is qualified as tacit. The point I want to make is communication relies on abstraction, regardless of considering how language works. And there is nothing to be afraid of.

Distributed Arts Publishing has a new catalog called “Shape of Light” corresponding to an exhibition of photography, still taking place as I write this at the Tate Museum, in London. Speaking with someone I think of as a master photographer, he mentioned that he knew a few people who went to the show and acknowledged how they noticed some difficulty seeing examples of painting next to photographs. He pointed out that using camera-less or alternative printing methods to make pictures helps sometimes to make a photograph that the eye does not “slip off”, and I agree that the maker-ly “hand” of painting is what makes it hard for a viewer to see Juan Miro in the same context as Laszlo Mololy-Nagy. But, I think it was in an MIT/Whitechapel book of writing about painting that one critic said of a controversy stultifyingly close to the subjects of painting and photography, and in particular the work of Andreas Gursky, that painting need not use a brush and a canvas, and equally so, I don’t think a photograph needs to use a camera (demonstrated in the catalog “Emanations”, for instance).

The work in “Shape of Light” that shines for me is the most recent work of photographic abstraction; in particular Maya Rochat’s work, and I have ordered a monograph of her pictures specifically because I am so dumbstruck by what I see of what she has made, even in reproduction. I read a Tweet from a documentary photographer a few weeks ago that I can’t judge the spirit of, but he suggested viewers have what he called a “fear of abstraction”. I think if there is any fear it arises from the purported irreconcilability between the two modes of perception I detailed above. In the 1970’s, the great Tom Wolfe wrote a book called “The Painted Word” about how criticism of art sometimes conditions the responses by artists and audiences. He noticed how some artists at the time had a tendency to form their work to critical order, but I think he was extremely generous too, comparing an art critic at the time, in an interview, to Samuel Johnson (I think he meant it in terms of influence, and ironically, but I like Wolfe, so I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you watch the interview to the end there is a wonderful interaction with Dave Hickey). Wolfe saw how the audience for art could see in the critical light cast by the tastemakers of the day. Abstraction for photographers today is more about materials than concepts (I think the index in “Shape of Light” devoted to materials and processes is terrific). There has been a reconciliation of “know-how” and “know-what”, or at least compared to the inception of abstract art, which tended to be driven by concepts (and unreconciled positions in art theory, and philosophy). I think people today do better by looking at pictures and gauging their responses with their own intellect, more than using an instrument that antedates experience (and amending their preferences). We can feel free from anxiety when we look at photography right now.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.