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Capturing the abstract in photographs


Since a photograph has to be a picture of something or other, even if just a blank piece of paper, "abstract photograph" might seem a contradiction in terms. But not if we remember that abstract art doesn't only mean non-representational art. It also means, according to the reliable H. W. Janson's "History of Art," "the process [or the result] of analysing and simplifying observed reality."

And since this has been a century of abstract art of one kind or another, it's no surprise that many photographers have attempted abstraction. In doing so they have often been influenced by movements in the art world in general, such as cubism and abstract expressionism. "Abstract Photographs" at the Baltimore Museum of Art draws on the museum's collection (plus a few loans) to explore various kinds of photographic abstraction.

Among the earliest, practiced first in Europe, was the photogram, made without a camera by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light. Although preceded by other artists such as the German Christian Schad, it was Man Ray (at least judging by this show) who raised the photogram -- which he called a Rayograph -- to the level of high art. His three photograms here are mysterious and beautiful enough to evoke an emotional response.

One of the strengths of this show is that it includes a number of drawings in relation to the photographs. Georges Braque's cubist "Still Life with Guitar" (about 1912-1913) is shown with cubist-inspired photographs including Paul Strand's "Abstraction Bowls, Twin Lakes, Connecticut" (1916). Its close-up of overlapping bowls in a shallow space makes the cubist connection clear.

Strand and other artists including Florence Henri also photographed everyday objects such as apples or bottles in such a way that it's obvious their concerns were with such abstract, formalist concerns as composition, light and shadow, volume and plane.

"All that I know and the way in which I know it is made above all of abstract elements: spheres, planes, and grids with parallel lines offer me great resources," wrote Henri.

In the middle of the century, artists such as Aaron Siskind and Minor White pushed formalism farther in the direction of non-representation by embracing the concerns of the abstract expressionists, including emphasis on the two-dimensional nature of the picture's surface.

The show ends with various explorations of abstraction from recent years, such as Leland Rice's geometric abstraction made from a black square on a white wall, Ellen Carey's return to the medium of the photogram, and Ray K. Metzker's multiple repetition of a representational image to create an overall abstract pattern.

As if to show all of us how it's done, the great Alfred Stieglitz's contribution here is one of his "Equivalents."

This photograph of clouds becomes a pure study in light and dark, as abstract a work as can be found in the entire show. And yet it's still a photograph of clouds. Amazing.

This is not the easiest show to see, mainly because its organization is confusing at times.

But there's much to be learned from it, and the photographs themselves range from the thought-provoking to the superb.


What: "Abstract Photographs"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st Streets.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through June 25

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

$ Call: (410) 396-7100

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