Exhibition: Shape of Light - Tate Modern

It is not possible to overstate the value of this exhibition in the timing of my entry into L3. I visited Shape of Light at the Tate Modern just prior to enrolling and the exhibition helped to articulate my artist statement and intention for CS. I had the discovery of recognising many influential works of the Korean photographers I have researched and admired the last years. And so compressing this into an exhibition review would not be realistic. What I will do here is discuss the exhibition on its own merit with a separate intention to isolate connections I made from the exhibition in later posts which can form the basis of my research into CS.

The scope of this exhibition is vast, something not everyone appreciates. As Michael Glover for the Independent calls it “one of the most clangorously dull and yawn-worthily repetitious shows that Tate Modern has managed to pull out of its deep, saggy sack of mixed marvels for many a long year.” Perhaps this in context is the difference between having a use for the survey and someone who has the job of roaming the gallery circuit in the expectation of writing a few hundred words at a time.

I concur in part with Glover’s assertion that the exhibition is baggy. Gaby Wood for The Telegraph more diplomatically says “It’s not always clear when photographs are thought to have pre-empted the work of painters and when they have responded to it.” For example the inclusion in Room 6 of Jackson Pollock’s Number 23 to compliment the light trails studies of a decade earlier by Nathan Lerner seems to be forced. Compared to direct interactions and inspiration of Brassai, Strand etc. The relevance of which is more tactile as we see “their embrace of abstraction a kind of compliment to their more traditional documentary work.” (O’Hagan, 2018). I agree with this statement. It is easy to forget that many of these early celebrated ‘artists’ primarily had day jobs in photography. These abstractions were in many ways the sense of play and self-discovery in their downtime. It is ironic that photography has in my eyes at least splintered into factions of art, documentary, commercial, education, etc akin to social media bubbles we remain contained in rather than inform each other.

If there is one thing to take from this survey is that abstraction is cyclical. Artists, photographers (and those who see themselves as both) return to abstraction with a sense of presence of the time they have occupied, showing “a history of innovation, in which the darkroom and the studio are more akin to the laboratory.” (O’Hagan, 2018). The exhibitions use of size is helpful if you are unpacking the subject yourself. And that understandably is not for everyone. I’ve also been to exhibitions to kill time or with a passing interest and found myself with heavy eyelids and a strain of boredom. But you could say that in this loose arrangement one can, as I am doing with the Korean photography scene, find your own connections and conclusions.

Another thing the review in the Independent addresses is this white cube that contains “…a huge body of rather small-in-size monochromatic photographic prints set into larger mounts, which are themselves framed…” (Glover, 2018). Within these frames of frames, someone has done something magical, strange, ingenious. It is something I consider frequently, the fossilisation of photography takes away other sensory elements of the photographic process of capture and post-production. It makes the whole experience passive. Even digitally our image galleries are static and displaced for posterity. Is this the purpose of photography or can it be something more? For obvious reasons (property and value) it is not allowed to physically compare and contrast these works in hand. But photography's reproducibility, its primary asset and detractors first point of criticism is what makes interaction go beyond looking, but seeing vision as a multi-sensory pursuit that breaks out of its self-containment.


Baker, S, de l’Ecotais, E & Mavlian, S. (2018) Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art. London: Tate Modern

Glover, M (2018) ‘Shape of Light: 100 years of photography and abstract art, Tate Modern, London, review: Clangorously dull and yawn-worthy’ In: Independent [online] At: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/shape-of-light-100-year-photography-abstract-art-tate-modern-review-a8329541.html (Accessed on 24.10.18)

O’Hagan, S (2018) ‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art review – an experimental masterclass’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/30/shape-of-light-100-years-of-photography-and-abstract-art-review-tate-modern-london (Accessed on 25.10.18)

Tate (no date) Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk (Accessed on 04.08.18)

Wood, G (2018) ‘Shape of Light, Tate Modern, review - stunning, if slightly out of focus’ In: The Telegraph [online] At: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/shape-light-tate-modern-review-stunningif-slightly-focus/ (Accessed on 25.10.18)