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Camera Obscura

New show at Cornell challenges viewers to reconsider the photograph

Photo: Courtesy the artist/Jayne H. Baum Gallery, New York, License: N/A

Courtesy the artist/Jayne H. Baum Gallery, New York

This is not a photograph: Ellen Carey’s “PushPins, 2002” is on display as part of The Edge of Vision

The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography

Through March 27

Cornell Fine Arts Museum

1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park




Photography can be the hardest art form to appreciate when it’s presented as abstract.

When you’re looking at abstracts created using other media, no matter how complex, you can usually glean enough information from them to at least help you understand the process that created it. In painting, a brush stroke might reveal the painter’s hand or the energy put into its creation; in sculpture, the use of a particular material might reveal the process by which something has been assembled and give the viewer something recognizable to relate to.

But the process of creating photographs is less intuitive. It lacks the textures of a painting or sculpture, and the things viewers rely on to gain some frame of reference in the artwork can be far more difficult to discern. The images, intriguing or beautiful as they may be, can seem frustratingly opaque. That could certainly be the case with the Cornell’s newest show The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, which opened at the museum on Jan. 15.

The show is a rigorous exploration of what constitutes an abstract image – or even what an image is. Some of the works are so far removed from what a viewer might recognize as a photograph that they’re almost unidentifiable without a vocabulary in photography. This is both the challenge and the appeal of the show.

Fortunately, patrons of the Cornell had two opportunities to catch up with Lyle Rexer, the author and scholar who curated the show (he wrote the book The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, which explains the concepts this show explores); those who missed it might still be trying to figure out how, exactly, Jack Sal’s “Salt/Room” installation, which features steel beams, piles of salt and photographic printing paper, is going to make a visual record of this show when all’s said and done, or why Penelope Umbrico’s “8,313,619 Suns From Flickr” is relevant to anything else on display here. Those who caught him during either his opening-night tour of the exhibit or his gallery presentation on Jan. 15, probably walked away with a far deeper 
appreciation of not only this show, but also the history and practice of abstract photography in general.

According to Rexer, photographers have been fascinated by abstraction ever since the first pioneers of the medium started messing around with silver, salt, iodine and iron. When it was new, Rexer says, photography wasn’t precise and “nobody really knew what a photograph was supposed to look like,” so early photographers – like Fox Talbot, who invented the process that resulted in the negative from which multiple prints could be made – were constantly experimenting with light, chemicals, colors and printing techniques.

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