11 Contemporary Artists Working in Abstract Photography

Barbara Merkley

Art

Elyssa Goodman

The relationship between photography and abstraction goes back to the dawn of the form. Notable examples of this include early cyanotypes, Man Ray’s “Rayographs,” photograms by László Moholy-Nagy, macrophotography by Aaron Siskind, and countless others. And today, the trend for abstract photography continues across the globe; imagemakers are producing work that incorporates a wide range of processes and use of color, often incorporating aesthetics we’ve come to expect from painting.

In a world where images can be taken and shared anywhere at the drop of a hat, it’s understandable that these artists would embrace more complex aspects of photography—those that can’t live inside a phone. Instead, these are images that require a multitude of processes, layers either physical or conceptual, and intricacy. Here, we take a look at some exciting contemporary photographers using the medium to work in abstraction, embracing everything from the natural world to architecture and more.

At a glance, American artist Liz Nielsen’s work evokes a cross between sea glass and gemstones with its bold jewel-toned hues in nature-inspired and abstract shapes. Nielsen herself refers to them as light paintings and to herself as “a photographer whose medium is light.” Her images are actually not made with a camera, but “in the analog color darkroom exposing light sensitive paper and processing it through traditional color chemistry,” she wrote.

Following in the footsteps of Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, and others, she puts a new spin on the photogram by experimenting with bold color. For a negative, she creates a collage of gels that are then projected onto a negative chromogenic paper—this is where her exciting palette comes from, when the colors are inverted in her development process. She’s curious and inspired by physics, color theory, philosophy, and the movement of light in and out of the darkroom, visual interpretations of which are all present in her work.

Traversing his surroundings in Maine and New Jersey, American artist Bryan Graf creates photographic manipulations of nature and space to comment on both elegance and destruction. Within his images are leaves and light projections, screens and photograms, all of which pose questions of place and its meanings.

Sometimes, he creates images by purposely exposing film; other times through digital manipulation; sometimes both at once. It’s as much an investigation into classical alternative photographic processes as an embrace of the new. Inside all of it, Graf once said, “the positive tension between the experience of a place, the emotional impact it has upon us, and the associative interpretations that influence the depiction of landscape drive my work.” With meditations on the environment also functioning as a metaphor for growth both literal and figurative, he sees his practice, he has said, as “an optical investigation into the plural nature of reality.”

Throughout his career, Finnish-born artist Niko Luoma has experimented with photography’s many alternative processes, whether that be multiple exposure, light manipulation, collage, or others. All the while, he’s interested in both addressing and paying homage to photographic history.

In his photographic series “Adaptations,” for example, he reimagines classic works from art history in his own experimental style. In his work, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), for example, becomes a colorful geometric celebration; David Hockney’s Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966) turns into an abstracted collage of shapes and colors referencing the original.

Luoma’s most recent series, “Illusion of Now,” features multiple exposures of colored light captured on a single negative, all intertwined but purposely without a clear beginning or end. “There is no one way of perceiving these pictures since they can begin anywhere and have no end,” he wrote. “They are system-based experiments where the negative becomes a record for its own realization.”

“It begins with a photograph or a fragment of a photograph—car headlights maybe or sunlight streaming through a window,” British artist Christine Wilkinson has written of her work. Then, she digitally manipulates the image to blur it, “reducing the image simply to random pixels to be used as raw material.” She’s interested in process first and foremost—how that perpetual reduction creates a new form.

Each image features a multitude of manipulations and mediums, whether it’s a scanner, a digital camera, photography software, or even a pencil. And even after several rounds of machination, the works are commanding and bold in their abstraction and minimalism: Large swaths of colors and hues become entrancing, mystifying voids. Her works, living at the intersection of painting and photography, involve abstract experimentations with shape, light, and color. “Light becomes form,” she wrote. “Form without substance, existing only as an instance of colour and light.”

Pedro Correa

Pedro Correa, Girl Standing by the Sea, from the series “Urban Impressions,” 2015–20. Courtesy of the artist.

Pedro Correa, When The Last Tree, from the series “Urban Impressions,” 2015–20. Courtesy of the artist.

By his own description, as a child of a painter, Pedro Correa has infused into his photography an appreciation for and inspiration from Impressionism. Indeed, painterly aesthetics appear frequently in his images, which are purposely not manipulated digitally. Instead, they arrive purely from behind the lens—at once decisive moment and alternative focus.

Correa is deeply interested in city life specifically, and throughout his work he seeks to find, as he once wrote, “the subtle human presence exuding out of urban landscapes”—at once Claude Monet and Lee Friedlander. The scratches, screens, or rain on a window become part of his lens, in their own way brushstrokes on a canvas.

Capturing a moment as a photographer is as important to Correa as the emotions it exudes, a quality he sees as akin to the Impressionists. While getting a PhD in image processing, Correa learned, he wrote, “that by removing rational information from an image one could actually dampen brain activity and enhance the viewer’s emotions (creating a more personal experience with the artwork).” This continues to inspire his work today.

Mexican artist Fabiola Menchelli has dedicated her artistic practice to working within photographic abstraction, testing the medium to see what its possibilities and boundaries are. The work, she has written, “seeks to expand ways of looking through photography, its stories and its processes, and its gravitation on reality.”

In a recent series called “Dark Moves,” Menchelli expanded her photogram work into sculptural pieces, printing images on stainless steel she’d then bend in the darkroom, “folding the photographic paper and exposing it to various color filters, sometimes solarizing the prints in the developing bath, pushing the image to its limits,” she said later. The series is totally improvised, meant to deviate from ideas of what an image should be, even an abstract image of her own creation. It retains her signature dedication to experimental color and form, ever challenging the grasp of both our own ideals about photography and the premise of what an image can physically, chemically, structurally become.

Throughout her career, Russian-born artist Galina Kurlat has turned to historical photographic processes to make her work. Her practice sometimes lives within the more concrete world of portraiture, but also embraces the abstract. Kurlat’s work always relates to notions of “identity, intimacy and uncertainty,” she has explained, whether that’s in documenting such themes directly or creating powerfully ominous traces of them. This has included everything from distressed Polaroids to wet colloid prints.

In her most recent work, a series called “Vestiges,” Kurlat produces abstract lumen photograms using her own saliva, breastmilk, breath, or blood, in addition to traditional photo chemicals. In the work, she has written, “the female form, which is subjected to an onslaught of societal pressure and objectification, defies conventional representation, appearing as mark-making and surface disruptions on photographic paper.”

In shades of plum, pink, orange, peach, yellow, and white, the series continues her dedication to connecting herself to her work, stretching the bounds of what photography can be, reveling in its foibles and frailties.

Australian artist Paul Snell’s work is overflowing with vibrant colors, drawing in viewers with eye-catching tones. But his work is much more than vivid hues. Crafted from images that are then digitally manipulated down to color and form, they become, as Snell has said, their own new reality, one that uses its original image to create a completely different experience.

For Snell, that experience can exist in electric concentric circles, sunset-like flows, or the length of a saturated tableau. It’s at once about connection and disconnection, construction and deconstruction. “The work investigates the transformation of photographic modes of production and the manipulation and exploitation of data to invent new visual forms,” Snell wrote. “By rhythmically repeating, pairing, overlapping, reversing and sequencing through the investigations of specific colour relationships, I seek a sensory understanding of the physical object.”

American artist Teresa K. Morrison has created a series of lensless photographs as albumen prints or in a photogram style called chemigrams. Using found natural objects like weeds, herbs, leaves, and honey, Morrison immerses the objects in developer or fixer, then places them onto photosensitive paper in the darkroom. Interestingly, the paper is anywhere between 30 and 100 years old, and Morrison says she’s curious and excited about the aberration and surprise of it all: “I consider it a collaboration with the paper,” she said.

The subjects—like sorrel, rye grass, bitter lettuce, and dandelion—are often found in her garden. On the paper, they take on an array of dark and light tones, all fed by the paper’s age, composition, and reaction to processes. “May we each defy factory settings and depreciative neglect to find unimagined purpose and expression,” she wrote on Instagram on the occasion of the new year—a photographic philosophy with long-range implications, to say the least.

In Francisco Tavoni’s work, there’s a dance between the real and the imagined, between light and structure, between color and heat. The Venezuelan-born artist currently resides in Australia, and by his own description, he “uses photography as a way to collectively understand the power of affection.” This is affection for one’s home, between individuals, within the self.

He’s ultimately seeking authenticity, and on that exploratory search creates images using both bodies and fabric, concealing their identity to create a stronger image of a united humanity with chromogenic images printed on cotton. Each image uses alternative processes, “colored lens filters, see-through silks with patterned layers, and colored strobe lights,” Tavoni once said.

His relationship to his work is in part a reflection of a past life working in fashion, where Tavoni began to understand the powerful relationship between color and fabric and, later, light, as well as a life dancing in clubs.

Dutch photographic artist Luuk de Haan has been creating one-of-a-kind work—quite literally, as there is only one of each of his prints—that lives at the intersection of geometry and fantasy. As writer Derek Horton wrote, de Haan’s images “are documents of their own coming into being rather than the recording of a world outside the photograph.”

Each of de Haan’s images revisits analog photography’s alternative processes alongside digital manipulation, at once a use of hardware and software: He photographs a digital structure he creates on the screen with analog cameras. A composer as well as an artist, de Haan is influenced by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, yes, but also Steve Reich, always cultivating both the spirit and presence of minimalism. The resultant work is both vibrant and sleek, mysterious and intricate, “somewhere between present and vanishing,” as writer Vince Aletti once wrote in The New Yorker.

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