Will Photography Follow the Trajectory of Art From Realism to Abstract?

Will Photography Follow the Trajectory of Art From Realism to Abstract?

Art mimicked life and photography captured it. Then photography mimicked art until it too became an art form. But will it follow the trajectory of paint and canvas trends?In 2019, photography feels old. It's ubiquitous in modern society with the ability to enjoy and create photographs now often predating speech in children. But really, it's a modern invention that is still going through its early motions. Is it possible that we're likely to see photography follow the drastically shifting trends of art? Do trends really matter that much to the health of the industry?

If you look at a brief and criminally cursory look over the board history of art, it followed a traceable trajectory. That is, simplistic etchings originally attempted to mimic life. The prevalent theme thereafter is a refining of the same overarching goal: realistically recreate that which the artist sees. The pursuit of perfection in form, scale, perspective, color, technique and so on, took hundreds upon hundreds of years — arguably longer. But it did indeed get to a point where the realism (with a capital R at this point) of paintings was breathtaking. Then, the trends shifted to more experimental alternatives. Artists bent and bowed the rules until it was difficult to see how Realism lead to this point. Impressionism dipped a toe in expansive and open waters, and Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism dove deep in to the Mariana Trench. Then, in the boggy darkness came the polarizing movement of Abstract Impressionism and with it Jackson Pollock.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, by Jackson Pollock. Enamel on canvas (1912-1956) Metropolitan Museum. Photo by "rocor" via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.

It's Pollock's drip paintings that sparked this thought initially, but I could never put my finger on why I thought it was relevant to photography. The trajectory of art (or the trajectory of art's key movements and trends I ought to say) spanned centuries and were borne of different aims and different skill-sets. However, I felt the loose panel in the fence was in my assumption that art and photography had "different aims". Then, by chance, one of my favorite video essayists and YouTubers, Nerdwriter1, released a video today titled "How Art Arrived at Jackson Pollock."

Two things happened after watching it. Firstly, I realized what had bothered me about separating out art and photography so cleanly: it was patently a false dichotomy to do so. Secondly, one of the top comments on the video unearthed my original sticking point. This comment by Jesse D read: "It is no coincidence this all began when photography was invented."

In many ways, photography has followed comparable paths with art. The aim was to create as realistic depictions of what the artists sees as possible. Eventually, art got to the point where the best of the craft were essentially as close to life-like as is possible. So, they had to find new ways to impress, captivate, and evoke. Cameras, since their inception, have worked hard on creating the highest quality and most realistic (to what the eye sees) images they can. And this is where my question formed: as we arrive at a similar point to the end of Realism in art — that is, the closest replication of real life we can hope to achieve — will the artists go different directions? Has this already begun? Does this premise hold water?

There will always be realistic photography as by virtue of being instant, it has myriad applications. But with trends, is it likely to veer away from the pursuit of recreating what the eye sees, and starting to bend, bow, and break the rules like art did? We all see feedback on images of "this is so sharp" or "this is so clear," but when that's commonplace, will artists using cameras still aim for it? This of course only applies to photography as an art form, and historical documentation (even artistic ones like wedding photography) will be largely unaffected one presumes. Abstract photography already exists, but it's far from a trend. Given the intention of the camera as a tool, does it make sense to use it in unusual ways? Could that be said too of the paint brush and canvas? After all, they were also originally conceived as ways of conveying a message, and then capturing the world around us.

This article is not the presentation of some grand theory; I'm neither an art historian nor a savant. I want to know what you think. Will photography hit a ceiling of capturing and reproducing realism, and see artists using their camera to go far off-piste?

Lead image a composite of Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) by Thomas Eakins via Wikimedia used under Creative Commons and Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, by Jackson Pollock. Enamel on canvas (1912-1956) Metropolitan Museum. Photo by "rocor" via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.

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10 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

Abstract photography is already a thing and has been for quite some time. As for whether it will become a trend, I doubt it.

EL PIC's picture

Expect it to become a trend says Lomo the Photographer ..
Cheaper Cameras, More Creative Abstract, Software Cuzaoo, and UnReal Expectations .. then the End Will Come ..

Rashad Hurani's picture

What a great future awaiting photography! Cameras will not need sensors, so DSLRs will have only mirrors and mirroreless will have nothing. "eye focus" will grow out of favor, so will zebra. Most importantly Photoshop will be photoshopped

C Fisher's picture

Anyone else think Pollock was just trolling? Oh damn, someone thinks my drop cloth is art better hang it 😅

Duchamp was certainly trolling with his urinal :D

The story of him and Dali is fascinating!

Tom Jacobs's picture

Check out the art of valdabailey.com. for beautiful abstract photography.

Zack Schindler's picture

Here are a few abstracts I shot long ago. These are not composites. Love this kind of stuff

Man Ray experimented alot with photograms, we also had a fight between straight photography and impressionist(?) photography back with group f64.

It's already kind of happened and fizzled, people try but it always ends up a bit twee and meaningless compared to its art cousins.

Most of it has already been done before, messing with lens optics, removing the lens entirely, etc.. even attempts with Photoshop, which never take off except when you pretend it didn't happen and win a competition.

You're kind of stuck with messing with deep science and physics with abstract photography, to do something unusual, but those rules may be too rigid to produce good works of art.

Most of those established People within photography too most likely don't have a trained eye to notice good abstract works either, it may never propagate to the top.

Then again, I've noticed a trend with "manicured reality" things too well controlled and meaning left out with subjects intentionally arranged, that's coming close to abstract images, but it's kind of full and often artists overuse ambiguous meaning when it's harder to get off the fence and make a decision about what you're trying to say.

When you've only got reality to work with, it's kind of hard to make good abstract works, very hard.

Ruth Carll's picture

Good abstract work, like all good photography should be hard. And, good abstract work should be done using the premises of all good photography - with thought for composition, color/line/texture and skillful technique.

I'm not sure why any photographer's chosen subject would garner criticism or get dissed by other photographers. If you don't like it - don't buy it. I don't like most model shots but I wouldn't disregard that the photographer had skills or that other people might like the work.

Finding the abstract subject in the real world rather than generating it in processing is the same rush for the abstract photographer as the thrill that a landscape photographer gets when they find that special scene. It is just a different subject matter. I think that, because most people don't do this type of work, they may not recognize that, for those that do, it is the same in inspiration and motivation as any other topic.

The group Minimalism, Abstract and Experimental photography is active here on fStoppers and some interesting stuff is posted there.

I am an abstract / experimental photographer and I do my work in the camera. (Although the fact that I am a scientist by trade gave me a chuckle about "deep science".) I try to create images that are interesting and have artistic appeal. I have to set up lighting, create the subject and go through a process similar to a model shoot.

I think that there is a place for abstract work within the realm of photography. Not as in hanging a paint splattered tarp or as a digital art form but rather as valid as any other type. I hope it does continue to grow and I hope that growth is due to artists working really hard to create quality work.

These are just examples of some abstract work that is created and captured in camera. You may like it, you may hate it but that is what art is all about - isn't it?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

If Bob Ross ever put a canvas beside the place where he was "beating the devil out of the brush," he would have one meaningful picture and one like the first from the article, i.e... less meaningful.