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LAF: What is Abstraction in Photography?

What is Abstraction in Photography? Diarmuid Costello (Warwick)

Date: 22 Mar 2017, 16:00 to 18:00

Venue: Holden Room 103, First Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU


On the default view, photography is at bottom an automatic process centred on a mechanical recording apparatus, producing images that are causally and counterfactually dependent on their sources. Given this view, abstraction is sometimes thought to present a particular challenge for photography: how could images that are, by definition, causally and counterfactually dependent on real objects be abstract?

I take issue with the perceived difficulty of abstraction for photography on two fronts: 1) by disambiguating the idea of “abstraction” as applied to photography, and 2) by bringing together resources for a better conception of photography.

The paper proceeds in three steps by asking three questions:

1. What is abstraction?
2. What is photography?
3. What is abstraction in photography?

Under the first, I consider the views of Clement Greenberg, Richard Wollheim and Michael Newall to outline a theory of pictorial abstraction. Under the second I contrast two conceptions of photography, the “orthodox” view for which abstraction in photography is a problem, and a revisionist conception for which it is not. Under the third, I suggest a provisional typology of various kinds of abstraction (and non-abstraction) in photography (“proto-“, “faux-“, “weak-” and “strong-“abstraction) that are often run together. I give examples of each, and close by considering various problematic cases for the typology. The talk makes extensive use of examples throughout.

The London Aesthetics Forum is generously sponsored by the British Society of Aesthetics. Further information can be found here.