“Abstraction and Deception,
to the photographic images
Does ‘abstract’ photography exist? This question has often been asked, and the very fact that this term exists suggests that it does. But if this term should have its justification, what could it say at best? Is not any attempt at abstraction nipped in the bud by photography? Or is not every photographic image an abstraction?
Photography always already claims representation. This on the basis of an assumption which actually, i.e. factually, presupposes the object which is depicted. This object inscribes itself indexically in a light-sensitive layer. There, in turn, it becomes visible. The reference back from the photographic image to its referent is possible in the sense of a homomorphism, which projects the three-dimensional onto a surface.
So is photographic abstraction possible? Yes. No. And yes.
I would say yes, provided that one delimits the reality of the image from the apriori of a given ‘real’ reality. This is because reality and photographic image per se cannot be compared or matched. To want to determine a degree of abstraction of photography inevitably leads to that misunderstanding which is based not only on the common awareness of the photographic image as a neutral image of reality, but consequently on the assumption that the camera is an equally neutral transit station on the way from thing to image. Every photograph is an abstraction.
I would say: No, insofar as it is a matter of a possible abstraction of photography. In so-called abstract photography, the image seems to manage entirely without referents, or at least not to want to name the relation between image and referent unambiguously in the sense of an indexical representation. In this way, the photographic image becomes seemingly autonomous. It shakes off the fetters of representation and asserts an independent reality. But this happens, as I said, in every photograph. Every photograph creates an abstraction.
And I would say: yes, insofar as what is meant by this is an act of abstraction on the part of the viewer. We see photographs and match them with those images of reality that are familiar to us, that we have appropriated. The act of perception thereby corresponds to an act of abstraction that calls up our cognitive images in order to be able to recognize what we see. This is also an act of representation, but it is not between reality and image, but between image and image. Because, as I said, we are not able to match the image with reality, but only with the images we make of reality. Every viewing of a photograph is an act of abstraction.
Laurenz Theinert’s photographic works designate easily identifiable categories on a formal level. They are mostly black lines on a white background, in rarer cases white lines on a black background. Even this first attempt to understand and describe his works reveals a power of abstraction that mentally structures what one sees. Mind you: mentally in a visual sense. The serial order in which one image follows the next conveys an overall impression that opens up the pattern of description, sensitizing the eye to nuances and subtle differences.
The fact that we are dealing here with photographic images is disturbing. It is the supposed knowledge of photography that Laurenz Theinert questions by choosing a referent that, as such, is neither visually nor cognitively accessible. Yet there he is, this referent. Behind the crosshairs of two blurred lines that cross in the center of the image are two power lines – one running horizontally, the other vertically. The focus varies within the series of shots. It locates the distance of two lines within a blur relation that exists solely as an apparative function (fig. 13).
In another case, there are thirty-six different camera angles documenting the view of a window. Here, perspective provides a whole series of pictorial realities (Fig. 7) And in another example, it is the momentum of the film material itself that leads to a photographic series: The increasing overexposure of a white surface in the course of the series makes the boundaries between the individual images of one and the same film strip almost disappear (fig. 2/2).
A referent is thus indeed always given. Laurenz Theinert, however, leaves this referent to the camera, to the film material, to photography as such. The nuances, the subtle differences between the individual images of a series result from the specific function and dysfunction of the apparatus. Sharpness and blurring, different perspectives and focal lengths, as well as the momentum of the material itself are significant, if not the actual variables of these works. The image refers to itself, to the conditions of its production, to that power of abstraction which is already inherent in the medium itself. Every photograph is an abstraction.
In a so-called ‘intermedial’ context, we would rather associate Laurenz Theinert’s images with painting or drawing, with minimalism or suprematism. They are paintings or drawings in the sense that they create rather than depict a reality. And they are reminiscent of Minimalism and Suprematism insofar as they seem to dispense with any referent. Both moments contradict the characteristics of photography.
We know that photography needs this referent in order to let something become visible at all. In the case of Laurenz Theinert’s photographic works, however, this referent is not to be sought ostensibly in reality. The referent is photography as such. Respectively the respective black line or the white surface. With Malevich it was the black square, the white surface – and painting as such. With Theinert it is a productive reflex on photography. And it secretly reflects the message: every photograph produces an abstraction.
This means, then, that even if we are able to perform photography’s act of abstraction in the transition from object to image, we encounter another limit in the course of an interpretive or significant reading of the image. We see photographs and match them with those images of reality that are familiar to us, that we have appropriated. In this act of perception, that power of abstraction becomes virulent which mediates between image and image.
In Laurenz Theinert’s view, however, our visual as well as cognitive competence fails to ascribe a meaning to the ostensibly formal context, which, when reading the photographic message, is usually linked to the content of what is depicted. Here, the act of representation opens up neither content nor meaning. It merely refers – and this is anything but a deficit – to the image itself, to its apparatic production, and to the preconditions of viewing the photograph. Every viewing of a photograph is an act of abstraction.
So does it exist, the ‘abstract’ photograph? Laurenz Theinert’s photographic works are abstractions only in the sense mentioned, they produce abstractions and reveal themselves in an act of abstraction that leads the viewer to the goal only in a roundabout way – if at all. It is the captivating magic of this strict conception that basically ties photography back to what it is. Against this background, the magic is very real. And the abstraction, too, is only a deception.