A Theoretical Sketch for Photographic Art
in the Late-Twentieth Century
essay by Steve Yates
[Editor's note: This essay was included in the now
out-of-print Poetics of Space: A Critical Photography Anthology,
a very informative book compiled and edited by Steve Yates, and published
in 1995 by University of New Mexico Press. It is reprinted here with kind
permission of the author. Steve Yates is Curator of Photography, Museum
of Fine Arts; Fulbright Scholar, USSR and Russia; and Associate Adjunct
Professor, Art & Art History Department, University of New Mexico.]
To give an object poetic space is to give it more space than it
— Gaston Bachelard (1)
Perhaps what we must be faithful to is our knowledge that distance
from nature is no longer represented by perspective.
— Stanley Cavell (2)
Our individual and most fundamental experiences in life are directly linked
to space or at least the idea of space. Every language contains numerous
words, phrases, and concepts dedicated to the term. Various disciplines
offer meanings and applications. Its definition is ever-expansive, its
interpretation measurable only in the context in which it is used. At
this juncture in the late-twentieth century, space is less a delineator
of prescribed classic or modern proportions than an expressive necessity
for inventive aspirations outside traditional norms.
Sweeping generalizations can plague the writing about subjects such as
space. However, space and artists’ conceptions of space have played
a significant role in the evolution of art. It seems that within history
shifts in the direction of art often are accompanied by eras of exploration
that help to establish new traditions. Coupled with inventive perceptions
of space during periods of prolific experimentation, such changes imply
a fundamental and theoretical abandonment of the past, often in vital
At the very least, a serious analysis of the idea of space provides suggestions
of maturity and growth by the practitioners of any artistic discipline.
At various junctures attention to new conceptions of space suggests other
paths in the making. A further indication of a significant break from
established convention often involves a certain amount of denial: advocates
of the traditional avoiding the changes of the present, an increase in
reevaluations of the past, and the repetition of ideas through generations
within the prescribed confines of only certain accepted or chosen practices.
Such reactions only deepen the implications of change, and the complete
departure from past practices that inevitably occurs can have influence
beyond individual conceptions of any medium.
Figure 38. James Turrell, Roden Crater 80%
overlap, Large Scale, modern stereo viewer on tripod with two aerial
photographs, 1985. Courtesy of Karl Bornstein Gallery. Installation view
from the exhibition Poetics of Space.
Eventually, practitioners working from common assumptions begin to acknowledge
alternatives to conventions in their own work. In their continuing refinement
of tradition they resist a full recognition of alternative choices —
those outside the options of historic record. Competing schools of thought,
challenging the untested ideas that oppose or realign accepted principles,
can cause transformations in understanding. When ground-breaking ideas
incorporate principles of space, breakthroughs in the direction of art
combine with pivotal ways of seeing.
It is noteworthy that modern philosophers and scientists (particularly
physicists) have continually undertaken theoretical reevaluations of space.
These have played a significant part in substantiating the present foundations
of their studies and affected the development and practice of related
The primitive mind, by never separating the experience between space and
an abstract concept of life, provided the natural world of events with
an immeasurable sense of energy, mystery and meaning. Greek thought and
early theological principles as well as mathematical formulations that
were applied to astronomical and astrological endeavors were influential
in establishing theories of the physical world through the Middle Ages.
Some of this early thinking led to modern conceptions that reach beyond
the immediately visible. The fourth dimension of time-space and multiple
dimensions precluded the notion of empty space.(3)
During the Renaissance, when mathematics was extricated from astronomy
and astrology, science and art together became a breeding ground for thought
and calculations that led to a more literal vision of space. The revolutionary
ideas of the Renaissance provided the paradigm that lasted for centuries
and directly influenced the inventors of photography in the 1830s.
During the Renaissance, art and science were less distinct as disciplines
of study and practice. When the notion of measuring distance from a single,
immediate viewpoint was conceptualized and formulated, the result was
a model of space that provided a more tangible organization of the immediate
physical world. Principles based on human scale produced a new sense of
proportions that, at least symbolically, established a more direct relationship
between the human form and the universe. A means of subjective assessment
through calculation and appraisal was applied with craftsmanship and skill.
Discoveries in optics, medicine, engineering, and various aspects of science
as well as mathematics influenced revolutionary breakthroughs in painting,
drawing, sculpture, and architecture. The pioneering work of the artist
Giotto di Bondone in the late-thirteenth century presented a new sense
of three dimensions — the illusion of real-world space — on
the flat, two-dimensional surface of a painting. His creation of three-dimensional
painted form in an architectural setting sparked a visual revolution that
led to perspective, connecting art and science to the direct observation
of the visible world. Furthermore, Giotto’s activities connected
the major art forms of the time — sculpture and architecture for
the church — with the subservient art of painting.
In the twentieth century a similar parallel exists in the evolution of
photography within mainstream art. The growing assimilation of newly rationalized
concepts of space among thirteenth-century art disciplines is similar
to the incorporation of photographic principles and materials by contemporary
artists. Today’s activities serve the reinvention of space in pluralistic
terms, which are breaking away from the modern paradigm. In both cases
spatial concepts have echoed more than aesthetic urges and indicated changes
in terms of culture. Spatial harmony and unification in Giotto’s
era corresponded with the church’s developing a closer relationship
with the masses. The interplay of two- and three-dimensional art forms
increase over time (Fig.39).
Figure 39. Paula Hocks, pages from Perspectives,
photographic book with color xerography, 1982. Museum of Fine Arts, Museum
of New Mexico. From the exhibition Poetics of Space.
Art historical analysis and criticism provide meaningful interpretations
about painting from the linear and literal conceptions of space. (4)
The fast-paced modern environment of information and media images through
photographic processes has strongly affected the multiple viewpoints of
this century’s artists. Today, culture is conveyed through a multiplicity
of independently defined forms of expression, compared to those delimited
by the structural and spatial unity of church-dominated architecture, sculpture,
and painting. A disunification of space is central to these concerns.
While our modern eyes tend to oversimplify the convention of perspective
and its variations, for centuries artistic practice and theory were far
from harmonious. Each individual artist’s unique visual sensibility
tempered the objective principles of perspective and its conceived modeling
of space. New applications combined subjective experience and practice.
Distance and scale conveyed meaning, representing a prescribed relationship
between art and viewer. An assigned point of view that rendered the viewer
immobile was essential in seeing a work of art.
Art defined space as a by-product of vision, echoing our presence as stationary
observers residing in the world of resemblance. Description satisfied the
knowing of and feeling for reality contained within the realm of pictorial
reason. Michel Foucault links such a sensibility with a pattern of understanding
that became a basis for cultural evolution and growth:
Resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western
culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation
of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made
possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the
art of re-presenting them.
Painting imitated space. And representation — whether in the service
of pleasure or knowledge — was posited as a form of repetition:
the theater of life or the mirror of nature. (5)
Rational forms of worldly things repeated empowered the picture. What
was visibly represented and depicted — including the domain that
held and accounted for the things within it — was thought to be
unquestionably present in the object prior to the final form of expression.
The invention of photography confirmed painting’s model. By some
accounts, the new process even challenged the very precepts of accuracy
or truth in representation that helped to establish the importance of
painting. Photography was in part conceived from the collective ideas
of perspective and space and their refinement over centuries. Another
of its aspects was born of scientific, optical, and artistic aspirations,
fueled by social and cultural needs as well as the increasing demands
of knowledge. A more comprehensive practice from the linear method of
descriptive logic — beyond such pictorial devices as foreshortening,
chiaroscuro, and perspective — re-formed the picture with uncompromising
Giotto’s pioneering work placed painting in the realm of intellect
and science. Painting eventually eclipsed the predominant influence of
sculpture, with its three-dimensional illusion of worldly materials and
structure. An unparalleled sense of truth came with sculpted form. Perspective
reconfirmed reality for the two-dimensional surface. Photography’s
capacity to record the light-reflected world reconfirmed veracity while
preserving literal spatial representation as a primary artistic purpose.
Theoretical debates between painters and sculptors of the late-thirteenth
and early-fourteenth century were further influenced by those who were
attempting to break the tradition of repetitive, pattern-oriented art.
(6) The questioning by artists of the inherent limitations
of an art form, its relationship to truth, the direction it had served
and should take in relationship to its limitations, and its social and
cultural roles went hand in hand with a more descriptively functional
conception of space in artistic as well as scientific practice.
Five hundred years later, the invention of photography and related initiatives
further refined such notions of space. The camera obscura (“dark
room”), Sir Charles Wheatstone’s stereo viewer, Daguerre’s
large-scaled, illusionistic light paintings for his Diorama theater, and
William Henry Fox Talbot’s preoccupation with drawing from the camera
lucida, all influenced ideas in seeing. Debate shifted from the materialism
of sculpture versus the illusionism of painting to handmade reality versus
the machine-ordered truths of the camera.
The camera and light-sensitive materials of photography articulated space.
Photography provided a rational form of space that further qualified the
linear geometric model of perspective. Using new materials the early practitioners
formed a new sensibility out of the Renaissance model. A fine line was
drawn between the world seen and the picture space, and this distinction
was discouraged. The popular understanding that a photograph was a “mirror
of nature” and a product of the “pencil of nature” became
a central theme in photography’s escalating battle to become accepted
as an art form.
The inventor of the modern process of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot,
was, in fact, a key figure in the advancement of these pencil and mirror
notions. In a presentation of his invention to the members of the Royal
Institute of London, on January 25,1839, Talbot described pictures he
had taken of his country home as “the first instance on record,
of a house having painted its own portrait.” Several days later
he announced the invention of photography in a paper entitled “Some
Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or, the Process by which Natural
Objects May be Made to Delineate Themselves Without the Aid of the Artist’s
Pencil.” Five years later Talbot published The Pencil of Nature,
demonstrating twenty-four early examples of photography to suggest its
artistic potential as well as other applications. (7)
Perspective appeared to be built in; the photograph seemed the result
of prescribed natural phenomena; and the influence of human factors was
conditioned by a set form of phenomena and process.
While such notions masked the difference between the picture and what
was seen by the eye, Talbot’s prolific experiments provided many
examples of the artistic potential for the medium. Like painting or printmaking,
it appeared to be self-determined by innate qualities. The formal properties
of architectural subjects provided evidence of the unique, uncompromising
visual character of the medium.
Inevitably, during the formative stages of any new art form, its intrinsic
materials help dictate the final form of expression through the hands
of the artist. As an art form matures and its traditions grow, individual
practitioners create ways of mastering what they perceive as the inherent
nature of the medium — its intrinsic characteristics. During the
course of artistic development, accomplishments define the medium and
its purpose, helping to formulate the contributions of each era.
In the early stages of photography, the materials rather than the basic
process varied. The photographer relied upon scientific formulas, and
the character of photographic space was less consciously shaped than optically
rendered. A limited sense of illusion and stasis typified pictures, often
as a result of long exposures or a preoccupation with the rendering of
detail that photography offered more than any other medium. Distance was
perceived through the delineating properties of light and the descriptive
tangibility of people and things. Mastery of the medium was perceived
as a science and proficiency in the material form of depiction; space
was more a function of the individual photographic process.
Photography’s development, which included experimentation with a
variety of materials and processes, continued at the turn of the century,
while debates centered on photography’s legitimacy as art. These
discussions centered around how photographers influenced their materials
more and more openly and were less interested in using their medium to
provide a literal translation of the world. New printing processes were
employed with expressive vigor, including the application of color. The
use of camera imagery became a catalyst to concerns outside traditional
photographic approaches yet within the domain of art.
A detailed sense of deep space or overriding impression of perspective
was less important than an attention to foreground, short focus, and the
print’s surface. Spatial unity was maintained in a closer relationship
to the picture plane, allowing for new levels of experience. The print’s
image remained closely associated with the objects conveyed but with variations
in the semblance of form. Pictorial space was not simply a matter of reality
portrayed; it coexisted in terms of individual picture elements. Each
part of the subject could be liberated for other purposes and the new
sense it independently sustained. The belief in photography’s capacity
of literal rendering was extended into the realm of more expressive possibilities
— with a transforming principle of space.
During this time of increasing alternatives (and experimentation) for
the photographer, controversy grew over the further acknowledgment of
the artistic influence over materials. The question of photography’s
place in art came to a historical turning point. Such critical and theoretical
inquiries during periods of transition include the benefits of cross-influences
and shared new conceptions. What becomes shared among artists —
the common denominator among the diverse activities of any period in art
— indicates the direction of change. The late-thirteenth and the
nineteenth century were not only marked by the polemics concerning media
(sculpture versus painting, and painting versus photography, respectively)
but also by new thinking and new ideas that became the precedents for
transformation. In both eras it was a new conception and use of space
that not only demonstrated the maturity of artistic expression within
individual art forms but heralded a shift in the direction of art that
transcended media, materials, or processes.
In this respect, like Giotto in his time, at the turn of the nineteenth
century Paul Cézanne conveyed another sensibility in his work.
The linear formula of the world observed — artist — artwork
— viewer — was relinquished for artworks that reflected the
new age of relativity and abstraction. In Giotto’s work, space followed
from the objects and their relationships within it; in Cézanne’s,
perception, space, and real things occurred simultaneously and without
hierarchy. Space was no longer subservient to objects in the world depicted;
rather, it co-existed with them as a more comprehensive world seen.
The revolution within culture and technology as well as their interaction
provided a new understanding of the world and the structure of thought.
Before the First World War the “culture of time and space”
permeated every part of life. (8)
How much the advent of photography helped liberate this generation of
artists from traditional ways of viewing the world remains a question
for history. If the invention of photography was a crystallization of
the Renaissance model in inception, its seemingly uncompromising mode
of ocular rendering and spatial translucence also appeared to preclude
After the turn of the century, through the advent of Cubism in art, the
Pictorialist movement, and early modern photography, a liberating break
from conventional notions of space took place. In Cubism multiple viewpoints,
positive and negative forms, and the use of memory by the painter influenced
another means of developing the picture’s structure. The artists
of Pictorialism acknowledged the surface of the photographic print as
an active part of the final form of expression.
Figure 40. Hannah Hoch, Bauerliches Brautpaar
(Peasant Wedding Couple), photomontage, 1931. Courtesy of Galerie
The development and increased use of collage and montage by the European,
German, and Russian avant-garde in the first decades of the twentieth
century provided the framework for unlimited perceptions of space across
artistic disciplines. Activities in painting, drawing, graphic and typographical
arts for the printed page, filmmaking, and theatrical design reflected
widespread experimentation, often combining characteristics of traditional
media in new ways. The mobilization of the camera (e.g., the “bird’s-eye”
view), the multiple and fragmented viewpoint, and the prolific theoretical
“laboratory period” of the Russian Constructivists enormously
expanded the potentials of space in art. Pioneering activities in the
arts ran parallel to modern scientific, mathematical, and technological
Dada and Surrealism, which followed, added the dimensions of chance and
the dream. The inventions of photomontage by the German Dadaists combined
disparate photographic fragments — often reproductions from the
printed page — into kaleidoscopic arrangements depicting the anxieties
of an industrialized age with increasingly dehumanized dimensions of politics.
Picture space was no longer measured in terms of human form or proportion.
Distance and scale were broken into a more vital multiplicity that served
each part of the montage with imaginative force and fancy. Edges within
their photomontages were central leitmotifs. The space of the mind was
conveyed in terms inside and outside the photograph.
Theoretical formulations of space by László Moholy-Nagy
in Von Material zu Architektur (later translated as The New
Vision, From Material to Architecture) in 1929, began to dispel further
the conventional notions of the Renaissance model of rationalized space.
Over forty uses of the term “space” were identified, adding
to the difficulty of any sure definition. The idea of relationships and
functions of space in art grew increasingly complex, nonlinear, and disconnected
from the past. Modern perceptions of reality coupled with another understanding
and sense of the world helped establish fresh criteria. Among artists,
a growing dissatisfaction with old conventions resulted in a remarkable
diversity in experimentation.
Art was pursued for significant changes in discovery as science pioneered
ideas of new purpose that became special turning points in history. Shaping
perceptions beyond the visible world encouraged innovation. In the early-twentieth
century art and science shared in a revolution of means in vision. Their
practitioners were more independently motivated in their aspirations than
during the corresponding reformation of the Renaissance. Shifts in practice
and theory indicate the transformation of any discipline. A “proliferation
of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression
of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and debate over fundamentals,
all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.”
(10) The revolution of photography within the arts
began with the exploration of growing alternatives inside and outside
the literal space rendered by the camera.
The climate of social unrest and political instability in Europe and Russia
provided the backdrop that further indicated the depth of change. Ideas
of space acknowledged the shortfall of dimensional formulations based
on the mathematical theorems of Euclid. Theories from various artistic
and scientific disciplines proliferated in contradictory fashion. Diverse
concepts were united to accommodate the spectrum of possibilities.
In publications such as Der Raum (1922), Rudolf Carnap articulated
the categories of “formal space,” “perceived space,”
and “physical space” as separate concepts that were interconnected.
In a paper delivered to the Kant Society in Berlin, Carnap first presented
his formation of these objective, subjective, and material concepts. Based
on the well-known contradictions among disciplines from the nineteenth
century, he developed a “synopsis of the different concepts of space,
organized objectively rather than in their historical context.”
Instead of rejecting one theory for another or creating a hierarchy of
truths, systematic logic was redefined to incorporate intuition. Carnap
pursued a clearer understanding of the “basis of the perception
of space” and its relationship to experience. His ideas directly
corresponded to the multidimensional ventures, such as the idea of abstraction,
arising from art, science, and philosophy of the period (see Carnap’s
essay in Poetics of Space: A Critical Photographic Anthology).
If the conception of space during earlier centuries was conveyed by the
metaphors of the mirror and the theater, in this century it had moved
from transparency and reflection to the heterogeneity of poetry. A prescribed
notion of its character no longer preceded the idea in art. Space could
be re-defined if not reinvented. Photography was profoundly affected,
along with other modern forms of art in painting, sculpture, architecture,
and the new film medium.
The Russian artists of Constructivism experimented with combinations of
materials to realign the viewers’ experiences in looking at art.
The German Dada invention of photomontage removed the narrow compass of
the single viewpoint in the spirit of anti-art. Uncommon points
of view with the camera as well as fabricated subjects created by the
European avant-garde opened further possibilities. Artists, like the scientists
of the era, found they could search into the intangible. The necessity
of believing in concrete forms of reality or a fixed purpose was transformed
to accommodate the unperceived characteristics of reality.
Similar notions of reality beyond the immediately visible world were developed
in untested fields of science, such as quantum mechanics. (12)
A new way of seeing in the world evolved that was unlike the physics of
everyday experience. Art, like modern science, was filled with paradoxical
questions and ambiguities that made clear the need for a new orientation.
Art was no longer a measurement of unified space. Rational theory of perspective
and sight had outlived its usefulness.(13)
An open-ended idea of space was more important to the artist than a substitute
for subjective experience. It represented a change in culture in terms
of looking beyond the present. Photographic materials and processes —
photomechanical reproductions from the printed page to photograms and
montage — extended the potential of art in photographic terms. This
major shift stepped beyond perception and the expression of formal outlines
drawn from language. Innovations with photographic dimensions of the period
indicated another relationship between artwork and viewer as well as unprecedented
ideas about what meaning photographic imagery could convey.
By the early 1920s, Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky was a leader in
endeavors that concerned new concepts of space in art. In his photographic
self-portrait (see Fig. 21), the artist’s vision replaces the alphabet
in a universal language where pictures supersede the written word. Hand
and eye construct the design for tomorrow’s culture with social
implications that transcend political consternation. Rooted in the modern
revolutions of science and technology with progressive social goals, Lissitzky
regarded art as a dynamic process.
21. El Lissitzky, Self-portrait, photomontage, ink, pencil, and
gouache, 1924. Courtesy of State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, photo by A.
Space became a medium that contributed to the materialization of the idea,
and form was — to use an aspect of photography metaphorically —
a “frozen instantaneous picture of a process.” Lissitzky’s
interest in the mobilization of the viewer and the abandonment of the
static position by the viewer in confronting a work of art offered values
beyond Cubism. The Russian avant-garde led the way into the “new
space” through their work and teachings in some of the most advanced
schools of the era. (14)
Photography and the growing perceptions of space were inexorably linked
in inventive postures that revealed the fixed point of view in art as
an exhaustible means of expression as well as a limited form of experience.
The Russian and German reactions to the radical social and political reformations
around the First World War were filled with anxiety. A more expressive
space, opened to the dynamics of life, was also conceived as less predictable
— yet evolutionary — through experimental artistic practice.
Figure 41. Robert Heinecken, Refractive Hexagon,
cut gelatin silver photographs glued to wood geometric puzzle, twenty-four
parts, 1965. Courtesy Center of Creative Photography, University of Arizona,
Board of Regents.
By the 1950s and 1960s, American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg,
Aaron Siskind, and Robert Heinecken (Fig. 41) became pre-occupied with
the space of the imagination as an analogue to experience. Space was further
separated from causality, marking a difference in seeing that affected
not only how the artist perceived the nature of photographs but how photography
could be used in seeing the world. Collectively, the ideas of artists
— inside and outside the late-modern tradition in photography as
an art medium — helped set a direction that altered the form of
content in art. Space through photographic innovation became a catalyst
for the invention of incommensurable ways of seeing. It was no longer
the product of ideological consequences or a servant to the world observed.
Flatness in photographic art began to gain importance. This was less an
attention to delicate surfaces than a reorientation in the relationships
between the artwork, the viewer, and the world. (15)
For the artist, it clearly represented a move beyond the compression of
distance, as in painting, into a structure without dimension. The picture
could assimilate more ideas, especially through photographic terms.
Figure 42. John Baldessari, Thread, Ektacolor
photograph and gelatin silver photographs with gouache on five panels,
1986. Collection of Suzanne and Howard Feldman. From the exhibition Poetics
The picture plane as a position for meaning and experience was realized
with unlimited capacities. Not just a replication of flatness from the
language of modern painting, this view was an act of recognition by artists
of the space of the imagination. The use of photographic materials, ideas,
and means set the precedent for a heterogeneity of flatness — a
new poetics of space.
Figure 43. Susan Rankaitis, Dragon Channel,
unique toned, gelatin silver photographic montage, 1985. From the exhibition
Poetics of Space.
Figure 44. Francisco Infante, Artifact,
gelatin silver photograph from sculptural installation, Moscow, 1981.
Collection of Lewis and Lynn Pollock.
Gaston Bachelard provides a remarkable sense of an ontology of space in
his seminal analysis in La poétique de l’espace (The
Poetics of Space). His critical inquiry into the origin of the poetic
image focuses on the phenomenon of the artist’s successes, independent
of skill and craft, of knowing and not knowing (“not a form of ignorance
but a difficult transcendence of knowledge”), and on the image’s
“transcending of all the premises of sensibility.” (16)
While this French philosopher sees that the poetic act (“the sudden
image”) is not accessible to close scrutiny, he confronts the imagination
to examine what are “simple images of felicitous space.”
Such an exploration helps to determine the human value of space as well
as the immeasurable part of artistic creation.
This vivid philosophical rendering of space, revealed through the analysis
of literature, is illuminating when considering artists working with photography
over recent decades. It touches upon a spectrum of contemporary issues,
opening a vast and renegotiable view of photographic art and its relationship
to the world, without the limitations of modern doctrine. Space has become
central to contemporary practice, transcending any single approach or
tradition, and has placed photography within the mainstream of art much
as a similar evolutionary shift in the Renaissance did for painting.
Correspondence between media and ideas is vital in such circumstances
of transition. Photography shares in the historical change in seeing and
the use of the imagination:
Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain
in different space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor.
It has been lived in ... with all the partiality of the imagination.
The shift for the artist is into a territory with little relation to language.
Photographic art at the end of this century faces the merging in functions
of the real and unreal.
This critical attention to new conceptions of space, which rises consciously
and unconsciously from the unbridled imagination and outside the bounds
of formalist discipline, can provide us with a firmer understanding of
the extraordinary changes in photographic works of art in recent decades.
The growing conviction of a present generation of artists that space is
limitless underscores the diminishing convictions toward historic or formalistic
parameters. Traditions are only important when they are used as the basis
for the development of new art that has no hierarchies and that moves
beyond the confines of old definitions.
If the innovations of the 1920s helped release the viewer from a set way
of experiencing the world, then the present activity by artists continues
to forge another awareness. Today’s open-ended conception of space
exceeds the applications of new materials and technologies or the resonance
of social unrest or cultural change. It has become an intuitive replacement
for past values that recognizes the limitations of past criteria.
A vital preoccupation with space offers the viewer a kind of questioning
and discovery that is less preoccupied with performance than with participation
and invention. Photographic works no longer represent a mirror turned
inward or outward. They are unconcerned with any systematic or stylistic
counteraction to tradition. There is an expansion in the discipline of
seeing that suggests an opening of the door and a stepping away from one
of the last strongholds of the artist’s historical residence in
worldly physical space — that of past photography where photographs
only contain the world.
This new value of space, within and outside established photographic practices,
includes the nature of the process of photography articulated by the idea.
Rather than putting forth a denatured form of space or reduction of the
camera-bound image, this is an art that invites infinite forms of expression.
Virtually uninvolved with science, systems of measurement, or the limits
of technologies, it denies formula. It is a value which affirms human
vision, the unfolding of perception and insight. Visual perception has
gained a strong foothold within the photographic directions of art. Merleau-Ponty
described the unstructured character of such a discourse:
Visual perception (which is never, in fact, limited to the visual
alone) is not a sort of picture that another picture could reproduce,
just as knowledge is not the copy of a world already given. (18)
In terms of art with photographic dimensions, relationships, and ideas,
expression is unrelated to what Bachelard termed the “reproductive
In the venerable pursuit of seeing, the poetics of space is part of the
artist’s search for another understanding in the context of a fundamental
problem of our time: the reorientation of the self. Artistic intuitions
of space involving expansive ideas of photography realigned seem to provide
answers in this perplexing period of change. Contemporary photographic
practices are leading the way in expressing the nature of our presence
beyond the post-modern world.
1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, translated by Etienne
Gilson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 202.
2. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, Reflections on the Ontology of
Film (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1979), 115.
3. For a thorough historical analysis from a scientific viewpoint, see
Max Jammer, Conceptions of Space (New York: Harper Brothers,
4. See Robert Klein, Form and Meaning: Writings in the Renaissance
and Modern Art (La forme et l’intelligible) (Paris: Editions
Gallimard, 1970), reprinted and translated (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1981), especially part 2, chapter 7, 129-142; John White, The
Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, second edition (London: Faber
and Faber Ltd., 1957); Erwin Panofsky, Die Perspektive als ‘Symbolische
Form (Vortage der Bibliothek Warburg, 1924-25); Lionello Venturi,
History of Art Criticism (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1964), especially
5. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of Human Sciences
(Les mots et les choses) (New York: Random House, 1970), 17.
6. For an insightful analysis, see John White, “Paragone: Aspects
of the Relation-ship between Sculpture and Painting,” Art, Science
and History in the Renaissance, Charles S. Singleton, editor (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins Press, 1968).
7. Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, revised and
enlarged edition (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982), 19-21.
8. For a thorough study of the cultural implications of space in modem
terms, see Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918,
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).
9. For a pioneering survey of early (proto) modern photography, See S.
Yates, “Proto Modern Photography: The Artist and the Critic,”
Proto Modem Photography. (Sante Fe: Museum of Fine Arts, Museum
of New Mexico, 1992), an exhibition co-curated by the late Beaumont Newhall
with Steve Yates. Key contributions in the ideological principles of space
by the Russian avant-garde in the early twentieth century can be found
in the work and writing of El Lissitzky. See “A. and Pangeometry,”
reprinted in this volume, John E. Bowk, “The Construction of Space,”
Von der Flache zum Raum, Russland 1916-24, (From Surface to Space,
Russia 1916-24.) (Koln: Galerie Gmurzynska, 1974), 4-15; John E.
Bowit, El Lissitzky (Greenwich: Galeried Gmurzyuska, 1968), 47-56. Also
Alan C. Birnholz, “Time and Space in the Art and Though of El Lissitzky,”
The Structuralist, 1978. Theory behind Russian Constructivism
is diverse and multifaceted. For a more comprehensive understanding across
the spectrum of ideas in the writings of the period, see Russian Art
of the Avant Garde, Theory and Criticism 1902-1934, Ed. John E. Bowit,
revised and enlarged edition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988).
10. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. 2, no. 2, enlarged
second edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 91.
11. Rudolf Carnap, “Der Raum: Ein Beitrag zur Wissenschaftslehre”
(Space: A Contribution to the Teaching of Science), Kant-Studien,
no.56, (Berlin; Verlag von Reuther and Reichard, 1922), introduction,
5. This paper was read and is-cussed by artists working and traveling
through Berlin, which was an art and information center after the First
World War. This paper was significant to the formulation of the theory
and writings of Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy.
12. Niels Bohr’s pioneering theoretical work at the turn of the
century began to explain the movement of atoms from one state to another
as a “quantum leap.” Until late in the twentieth century,
this “leap” — or intermediary state — was considered
to exist invisibly and theoretically without verification by direct observation.
But the notion of the quantum leap and a picture of it — which remained
outside direct, human visual perception for the greater part of this century
— was a critical tool in the evolution of modern physics. In recent
years, scientists have found a means to begin to observe this phenomenon.
13. William M. Ivins, Jr., Art and Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946, reprinted New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1964), 68-70. The last chapter of this publication
is reprinted in this volume. William Ivins developed significant writings
about the role of perspective in Western art as well as photography’s
influence on perspective in the art of the nineteenth century. Also see
On the Rationalization of Sight (New York: The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 1938, reprinted New York: De Capo Press, 1973).
14. Lissitzky-Kuppers. El Lissiitzky, “Nasci, 1924,”
347, and “Proun, Not world visions, BUT — world reality,”
15. Leo Steinberg qualifies this new orientation as the “flatbed
picture plane” in the work of Robert Rauschenberg. See his essay
in this volume. Century Art (London; Oxford University Press,
16. Bachelard, xxix.
17. Ibid. xxx-xxxii.
18. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “L’oeil et l’espirit,”
Art de France 1, 1960, as quoted in Robert Klein, Form and
This revised essay first appeared in the Museum of
New Mexico quarterly El Palacio, 92, 3
(Spring 1987), a Special Issue on Contemporary Photography, edited by
Steve Yates, in concert with the exhibition “Poetics of Space: Contemporary
Photographic Works” at the Museum of Fine Arts.