09 Nov 2020

Abstract in Monochrome

Unframe London

Abstract in Monochrome

UNFRAME delves into abstract black and white photography, from monochrome work of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy to the contemporary.

Abstract photography is an outcome of visionary experimentation amongst artists and photographers. Essentially, black and white abstract photography inherently depicts a purposefully warped portrayal of solid reality. When looked at closely, in turn, abstract photography allows creative freedom to dictate its outcome, often through use of equipment and processes. Many of the Unframe photographers work in the monochrome, and it is popular with contemporary artists. So we thought it would be a good moment to look at abstract black and white photography in more detail. This article gives an interesting context to this specific choice of medium, looking back at its history.

We explore the eclectic photographic work of a number of key artists, including the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn, Man Ray, Andre Kertesz, Yves Klein and Dora Maar, to name a few…

Alvin Langdon Coburn
‘Vortograph’. 1917. Alvin Langdon Coburn. Courtesy Luminous Lint

Experimentation in Abstract

Intentional abstraction initially refers to a need to represent an object, rather than depict the object as it can be seen. All in all, the resulting images do not show decipherable objects, figures or backgrounds. Instead they suggest the presence of reality whilst never giving it all away. Abstracted photographs often represent an association with the subject, or the feeling evoked when looked at.

Some of the earliest examples of black and white abstract photography began to appear in the mid 19th century. Originally, these warped photographs were the outcomes of scientific experiments and only later were they viewed from an artistic standpoint. In particular, the invention of Vortographs in 1916 by the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn were the first intentionally abstract photographs made. His invention of the Vortograph crucially initiated a change in the world of photography, formerly being a medium for documenting and scientific purpose. Alongside this, abstract photography became more of a defined movement after World War II due to the experimentation of photographers such as Aaron Siskind, Henry Holmes Smith, Lotte Jacobi, and Minor White.

Alvin Langdon Coburn
‘Ezra Pound Vortograph’, 1917. Alvin Langdon Coburn. Courtesy of Britannica

Typically composed of repeated forms, unrecognisable swathes and lines, abstracted photographs are often achieved by capturing objects in particular arrangements. In this example, photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, a key member of the Photo-Secession group, invented ‘vortography’ in 1917. After this, Coburn remained the principal advocate and practitioner of the technique. Although Coburn only experimented with the technique for a short while however. Furthermore, ‘Photo-Secession’ was a term introduced to name a group of American photographers who believed that photography was a fine art.

Vortograph Alvin Langdon Coburn
‘Vortograph’, 1916–17. Alvin Langdon Coburn

Alvin Langdon Coburn

The Vortographs created and importantly coined by Alvin Langdon Coburn convey a strong sense of artistic freedom in how they are composed. As the viewer, we are entranced by both clear and soft focused interweaving lines in monochrome. Visually, the focal point of the vortograph is uncertain. Therefore in this way, we are lead to view the photograph as a whole. Coburn’s vortographs depict accurate scenes of the real world through his abstracted lens. Compositionally, in this case, he devises an attachment of three mirrors which are clamped to his camera lens. Through this method, he purposefully creates a reflection where light bounces off each surface.

“Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved?” – Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Black and White abstract photography
‘Vortograph’. 1917. Alvin Langdon Coburn

Importantly, Coburn strives to prove and attain the idea that photography, as a well used as a documenting tool, was integral to the accurate capture an abstract version of the real world. Although still seen as experiments, the vortographs visibly and intentionally distort Coburn’s immediate reality. His use of three mirrors importantly fracture the image into a pattern of unknown planes, similar to the effect of a kaleidoscope.

“Why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?” Coburn wrote.

Man Ray Rayograph
‘Rayograph #3 from Champs Délicieux’, 1922. Man Ray. Courtesy of Khan Academy


In a similar way, artist Man Ray made a series of varied and abstracted photographic Rayographs. Initially, as Man Ray refined and personalised this particular technique, his new prints eventually carried his name ‘rayographs’. Also known as ‘rayograms’, Man Ray created them by placing objects onto photo-sensitive paper and exposing them to light. In turn, the outlined silhouettes of each object is recorded on the paper, creating unexpected patterns suggestive of objects.

Black and White Abstract Photography
‘Rayograph’, 1923. Man Ray. Courtesy of AnotherMag

Unlike the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn, he made his rayographs without a camera. In this process, Man Ray chose to use everyday objects such as wire coils, thumbtacks and forks to create these eery and shadow like images. Although Man Ray had used everyday objects in his photography before, these hauntingly unique images gave recognition to role of the photographer. As a result of this experimentation and progress, photographers soon became ‘on par’ with the successful avant-garde painters of the time.

Black and White abstract photography
‘Rayograph’, date unknown. Man Ray. Courtesy of Huxley Parlour

Often moving between the mediums of abstracted and representational photographs, Man Ray’s rayographs reveal a contemporary way of seeing. This new way of seeing in turn informed the Dadaist artists and writers who often championed his work.

“It is impossible to say which planes of the picture are to be interpreted as existing closer or deeper in space. The picture is a visual invention: an image without a real-life model to which we can compare it,” – Curator John Szarkowski.

Black and White abstract photography
‘Photogram’, 1926. László Moholy-Nagy. Courtesy The Art Story

Abstract Surrealism

With this in mind, a revolution in the human experience of art began emerging at the time. Surrealism played a huge part in asserting value in the unconscious, and this dream-like quality is in turn evident in Alvin Langdon Coburn and Man Ray’s photographs. Additionally, a realist and logical vision of life, in many ways, was favoured by artists and photographers at the time. Consequently, mostly informed by the disregarded and unconventional, surrealist artists often focused on ‘unlocking’ ideas and imagery from the ‘unconscious mind’. In turn, this made for hugely individualistic and hypnotic photographs, eventually paving the way for future surrealist work. Artists such as László Moholy-Nagy, Alfred Stieglitz, André Breton and Dora Maar are some of the key artists who experimented with these themes.

Dada and Man Ray

We can form a sense that the emergence of modern development propelled experimentation amongst artists, by looking more closely at the Dada movement. Importantly, as advancements came in radio and cinema, Dada artists began to illustrate their disillusionment with traditional forms of art making. They often turned instead to both examining and exploring more spontaneous and emotive art making.

“I have finally freed myself from the sticky medium of paint, and am working directly with light itself.” – Man Ray

Man Ray
‘Dust Breeding’, 1920. Man Ray. Courtesy of Luminous Lint

‘Dust Breeding’

Man Ray’s 1920 artwork ‘Dust Breeding’ is an important example of early Surrealist photographic work. Crucially, the black and white abstract photograph depicts the artwork ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ by the French artist Marchel Duchamp. Often, referred to as ‘The Large Glass’, Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ is a freestanding artwork over 9 ft tall. To illustrate this, Duchamp created this piece from 1915-1923, compiling it from a range of materials such as glass, foil, wire and dust. In this instance, Duchamp combines chance procedures, perspective studies and craftsmanship. Ultimately, the piece reflects upon the rules of physics through a mythological description.

The duplicity of Man Ray’s ‘Dust Breeding’ being a photograph of an artwork, primarily reinforces the elements of working on and adapting existing ideals and structures. Here we see, the eery photograph in many ways isn’t overtly recognisable as an object, but instead provokes multiple readings by the viewer. The piece is an early example of a collaborative work in Surrealism, crucially, both Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp utilise this to concoct a successfully challenging photograph. In this way, collaboration becomes key in the artworks concept, as seen in much of the work of the time. Often, during the abstract and surrealist movement, artists synergise and abstract pre-existing imagery and ideals through each other’s work.

Black and white abstract
‘Distortion series’, 1933. André Kertész. Courtesy of Kalman Maklary

André Kertész and Distortion

In a similar way, Hungarian photographer André Kertész’s 1933 ‘Distortions’ series depicts warped and stretched abstracted nude models. As we can see, ghostly elongated limbs adorn the final image, only partly recognisable as body parts. Much like the mirrored work of Alvin Langdon Coburn, Kertész made these abstracted photographs using mirrors to reflect the subjects, creating a sense of otherworld-ness and unreality.

Andre Kertesz
‘Distortion series’, 1933. Andre Kertesz. Courtesy of Kalman Maklary

“I do not document anything, I give an interpretation.” – Andre Kertesz

Kertesz’s manipulation of the human form into abnormal proportions, importantly, depicts the devotion to experimenting with photographic techniques at the time. In this case, Kertesz uses a funhouse mirror from a Parisian amusement park for his series of distorted nudes. Similarly, much alike to photographers discussed earlier, Kertesz’s ‘Distortions’ series is a perfect example of the exciting creative freedom of the time.

Antonio Biasiucci
‘Impasto’, 1991. Antonio Biasiucci. Courtesy of the artist

Contemporary Abstract

Many of these characteristics continue in the work of contemporary artists. Antonio Biasiucci’s work represents a continuation of the ideals of the original photographers who were, crucially, the first to experiment with distortion and abstraction. In particular, Biasiucci’s black and white abstract photography is mostly shot in Naples during the 1980s and 90s. Importantly, he began photographing urban spaces, while at the same time researching personal memory, photographing rituals, environments and people of his native country. Finally, research for his photographs are rooted in the themes of the transformation of Southern culture, and more recently into a journey into the primary elements of existence. 

Antonio Biasiucci
‘Impasto’, 1991. Antonio Biasiucci. Courtesy of the artist

‘Like fossils from the past, Biasiucci profoundly unearths once-forgotten collective memories….’ – Magazzino

Antoion Biasiucci
‘Vicoli’, 1987-1991. Antonio Biasiucci. Courtesy of the artist
Jorge Ortiz
‘Boquerón (Breach)’, 1979-1981. Jorge Ortiz. Courtesy of Espacio el Dorado

Jorge Ortiz

In a similar way, Columbian artist Jorge Ortiz’s abstract photography often places it’s focus on the cities of Medellín and Bogotá, Columbia. That is to say, in comparison to photographic work explored so far, Ortiz’s melancholy monochrome imagery is emotive in it’s composition. Here we see a partially cloudy sky obscured by geometric dark mass, the urban landscape hidden from view.

As part of this work, Ortiz produced his ‘Boquerón‘ series between 1979 and 1980. Importantly, each photograph made by the artist both documents and captures the movement of the clouds between two mountains. Named a ‘boquerón’, Ortiz describes a five minute interval. Importantly, Ortiz’s real intention here is to photograph time.

Black and White abstract photography
‘Boquerón (Breach)’, 1979-1981. Jorge Ortiz. Courtesy of Espacio el Dorado
Walead Beshty
‘A Partial Disassembling of an Invention…’, 2014. Walead Beshty. Courtesy of Mih Jeans

Walead Beshty

In a similar vein to the light sensitive photographic work previously discussed, British artist Walead Beshty displayed an array of cyanotype prints in his 2014 show ‘A Partial Disassembling of an Invention…’. Markedly, the exhibition’s full name ‘A Partial Disassembling of an Invention, Without a Future: Helter Skelter and Random Notes in Which the Pulleys and Cogwheels Are Lying Around at Random All Over the Workbench‘ draws parallels with the volume of found objects Beshty used to make this installation piece. In terms of process, Beshty uses the photographic method of cyanotype printing. Initially, this includes placing a chosen object on a porous surface (such as paper or cardboard) that has been coated with UV-sensitive material, this then leaves a shadow like imprint.

Walead Beshty
‘A Partial Disassembling of an Invention…’, 2014. Walead Beshty. Courtesy of Vernissage Tv

Beshty’s all-encompassing floor to ceiling artwork is a nod to the early beginnings of photographic experimentation. In this time, artists such as Man Ray and Alvin Langdon Coburn were first experimenting with photographic processes to create abstracted imagery. To contrast, Beshty utilises these photographic processes in borrowing them to create an immersive exhibition. In many ways, Beshty’s cyanotype prints are intended as a whole, unlike the singular and small scale photo series by Man Ray and Coburn.

Yves Klein
‘Leap into the Void’, 1960. Yves Klein. Courtesy Art 21

Leap into the Void

In contrast, Yves Klein’s ‘Leap into the Void’ captures an illusion; an astonishing leap from the edge of a building, taken in 1960. In this example, Klein’s abstract, but in a different way to those discussed so far. Instead, ‘Leap into the Void’ perfectly captures a performative abstract photograph. On this occasion, Klein lept from a rooftop in Fontenay-aux-Roses in Paris, eventually he was caught by a tarp on the street below. Important to note, Klein uses two negatives overlapped to remove the scene below, creating an abstracted scene. Klein’s created a performative photograph that was distributed in a fake broadcast at newsstands, in this display, he commemorates the event.

Ciprian Muresan
‘Leap into the Void, after Three Seconds’, 2004. Ciprian Muresan.

Leap into the Void, after Three Seconds

In this instant, the Romanian artist Ciprian Muresan’s 2004 ‘Leap into the Void, after Three Seconds’, plays on this element of collaboration between artists to create an abstracted image. Much alike to Man Ray’s ‘Dust Breeding’ , importantly, Muresan utilises Klein’s work to re-associate an existing and equally famous photograph. Firstly, ‘Leap into the Void, after Three Seconds’, crucially, re-stages Klein’s ‘Leap into the Void’ in Romania. Secondly, Muresan not only trasports the iconic image but changes the timings of the original – exactly three seconds after. Finally, the adapted performance piece re-situates an image from the height of European art, reflecting on the precariousness of the artist’s life in post-communist Romania.

To summarise, many common threads arise in the realms of black and white abstract photography. Initially, visionary experimentation ties each of the artists discussed, each of which intrinsically strive to create their own abstracted portrayal of actual reality. At this time, lead by experimentation with process during times of technological advancements, abstract photographers give a personal take on what already exists. To conclude, this has meant that often artists have worked upon each others photographic work to create newly abstracted outcomes.

Explore similar black and white abstract photography at Unframe