On the persistence of formalism in photography by John Meehan
The exhibition Not All Documents are Records is Open Eye Gallery’s reflective contribution to the 2014 Liverpool Biennial. The exhibit is an exploration of the question: “Can photography be the site where the history of an exhibition is produced and still retain its independent artistic autonomy, thus overcoming pure documentation?”
I have visited the exhibit several times, mainly to study the 26 photographs comprising Hans Haacke’s Photographic Notes, documenta 2 (1959). Of the four artists represented in the show, it is the images by Haacke and Ugo Mulas (of the 1968 Venice Biennial) that seem to answer the question most affirmatively.
This view is based on the overt formalism in both artists’ photographs that reveals a self-consciousness of style. Haacke and Mulas were clearly aware they weren’t merely documenting an event but were also attempting to create works of autonomous aesthetic value.
Many of the images have geometric compositions and use intrinsically photographic devices such as lens characteristics and tonal separation as image elements. For instance, Haacke’s image ‘Pollock, Child with Toy, 1959’ has geometry reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s extreme formalism. Inclusion of one of Mondrian’s own works in another image (‘Mondrian, Klee, 1959’) suggests the formal structure of Haacke’s image is no accident. Coincidentally, the Open Eye exhibit coincides with Tate Liverpool’s Mondrian and his Studios show.
Similarly, Mulas’s image titled ‘Venezia, 1968. Sala di Gastone Novelli’ blends a strong geometry and lens distortion – especially of the women’s legs – that seems to simultaneously reference not only painters such as Mondrian but earlier surrealist photography by Man Ray, Bill Brandt and others.
I have always been drawn to photographs with strong formal elements. Like many photographers, I move between genres when photographing. Street photography rarely allows time to consider the formal arrangement of elements (unless the photographer waits at a fixed location for a final element to arrive). However, still life and architectural photography are particularly suited to this more structured approach.
Following a recent visit to Open Eye Gallery (perhaps under the influence of Haacke and Mulas’ images) I ‘made’ the following formalist image.
This is not an unusual approach to modern architecture, except I have prioritised photographic style over any attempt to represent the building itself. In prioritising authorship over subject, this use of abstraction similarly echoes the modernist photography dominant between the 1920s and mid-1970s.
The Mann Island site occupied by Open Eye Gallery offers many such opportunities given the striking architecture of the site’s new buildings. Similarly, the nearby Museum of Liverpool has become well known to photographers due to its spiralling central staircase. This staircase alone offers endless creative opportunities for formalist photography (even before visiting the excellent exhibits it leads to).
Formalist photography was initiated by Alfred Stieglitz’s push for ‘straight photography’ in the early decades of the last century and developed by artists such as Paul Strand, Willard Van Dyke, Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White and Minor White. Its influence on photographers working in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Haacke and Mulas featured in Not All Documents Are Records, is therefore not surprising. Though less fashionable in contemporary photography, formalism remains part of the language of photography.