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Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art review an experimental masterclass

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This epic exhibition shows how masters from Man Ray and Mondrian to Maya Rochat transformed reality in their laboratory-like darkrooms and studios

In 1916, when Alvin Langdon Coburn met fellow American Ezra Pound in London, he was already a celebrated photographer, having made his name with striking monochrome portraits of leading literary and artistic figures such as Rodin, WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. It was Pound who introduced him to vorticism, the short-lived British avant garde modernist movement created by artist and writer Wyndham Lewis as a reaction to the dominance of landscape and figurative art. Equally frustrated by the representative nature of photography, Langdon Coburn immediately sensed the liberating potential of the vorticist dynamic of geometric shapes and cubist fragmentation.

In the Shape of Light, Langdon Coburns vortographs, blurred geometric arrangements of light and shadow, made using a set of mirrors to fragment the subject in an almost kaleidoscopic way, set the tone for an epic exhibition that traces the history of photography as experiment. Here, portraiture, landscape and documentary give way to abstractions created either by manipulations of light and chemicals or by distorting or fragmenting the actual world. The result is a kind of mirror-history of the mediums relationship to documentary and abstract art.

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Photogram c1925 by Lszl Moholy-Nagy. Photograph: Jack Kirkland Collection, Nottingham

Spread over 12 rooms, Shape of Light is also a history of innovation, in which the darkroom and the studio are more akin to the laboratory. The early-to-mid-century masters of light and form are all present: Brassa, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, their embrace of abstraction a kind of compliment to their more traditional documentary work. Their often stark monochrome photographs are contrasted with the formalist paintings of Braque and Kandinsky as well as the shiny curves of a gold Brancusi sculpture, Maiastra (1911), which Steichen must surely have been aware of when he made his oddly mystical study, Bird in Space, 15 years later. It is instructive, too, to see an image from Germaine Krulls still-undervalued series Mtal (1928), a hymn to the angularity and materiality of steel, and to contrast it with the cleaner lines of Margaret Bourke-Whites ground-level view of the NBC Transmission Tower (1934).

In a room entitled New Vision, the work of the great self-taught Hungarian modernist, Lszl Moholy-Nagy, inevitably dominates. His painting K VII (1922), a minimalist arrangement of lines and blocks of colour, is echoed in an untitled photograph by him from the same year and, much later, in Mondrians supremely ordered arrangement of colour and form, Composition C (No 111) With Red, Yellow, Blue from 1935. Similarly in the following two rooms, the restlessly innovative imagination of Man Ray makes its presence felt. One of his mysterious rayographs from 1922 is an early example of camera-less photography made by placing everyday objects directly on to photosensitised paper and exposing them to light.

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A restlessly innovative imagination makes its presence felt Anatomies, 1930, by Man Ray. Photograph: Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Both artists cast a long shadow: Moholy-Nagy in his architectural understanding of scale, angle and detail, and his subversion of the same; Man Ray in his seemingly instinctive grasp of photography as an essentially surrealist medium, capable of bending the real out of shape in astonishing ways. Bafflingly, though, there is not a trace of one of photographys great female pioneers, Berenice Abbott, who made formally brilliant architectural photographs of modernist New York as well as pioneering scientific images of great beauty including what she called her rayograms-in-motion that surely deserved inclusion here.

In a show that tends towards the cerebral, it is a relief to encounter some more tactile nudes by Brassa and Imogen Cunningham, in which the curves and surfaces of the female body retain a palpable sensuality. Bill Brandts distorted female forms, though, seem a little too forced in comparison. All three of the aforementioned artists could have featured in room eight, which is titled Surface and Texture. It begins with three images from Brassas Graffiti series, in which he photographed anonymous carvings and etchings made on the walls of Paris, some recognisably representational, some abstract, all seeming to hark back to older forms of expression such as cave drawings. More intriguing still are Aaron Siskinds photographs of cracked, peeling paint on weathered surfaces, which possess a tangible sense of materiality and a tonal quality that speaks of time passing and, with it, the slow, inexorable decay of buildings, objects and those who created them.

This is an exhibition that demands a constant attentiveness to detail and, as such, will repay a second or even third visit. The sheer amount of work on display is at times overwhelming and here and there the endless riffs on angular shapes, circles and patterns of light began to blur into a long series of slight variations on a single brilliant idea. In this context, Lewis Baltzs almost blank minimalism is a much-needed breathing space. His evocation of the banality of postwar suburban American architecture grey concrete surfaces in small frames has a social, even political, undertow in that it draws attention in its deadpan way to the spread of these soulless environments. This is the mundane made abstract.

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A Rock is a River (Meta River) by Maya Rochat, showing at Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art. Photograph: Maya Rochat

The final room is given over to contemporary abstraction and, perhaps inevitably, reflects the dilemma of current photographic practice in our profligate image culture. Both Maya Rochat and Daisuke Yokota, in their differing ways, subject their images to intense, almost destructive, transformative techniques using chemicals, heat, paint and, in Daisukes case, constant rephotographing, reprinting and rescanning. The visceral nature of their approach both degrades and heightens the photographic image and, by extension, the very idea of photography as a recording medium. The end results are images that are, among other things, traces of a process that is akin to improvisational music insofar as it allows, even thrives on, spontaneity and accident.

London-based Antony Cairns produces traces of a different kind, his shadow-images of London at night emanating an almost ghostly atmosphere that is both Ballardian and oddly Victorian. His silver gelatin prints are shown here behind glass plates in a large grid, each one a glimpse of a cityscape, indistinct yet recognisable, familiar yet unknowable. The ghosts of photographys past haunt these images: the monochrome textures and shadowlands of Strand, Stieglitz, Steichen and Brassa the flaneurs and psychogeographers of another time who sensed the mediums singular possibilities, not just to reflect the real, but to transform it into another kind of abstract art.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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