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The following article was published in European Photography - Art Magazine (Berlin) No. 77, 2005, represents theses of the book Concrete Photography (1) by one of its authors. The text deals particularly the crucial cornerstones of the theme.

Gottfried Jäger: What is Concrete Photography?

“As for the term ‘concrete’, initially it is certainly to be understood, like in Hegel, as the opposite of the term ‘abstract’. The concrete is the non-abstract. Everything abstract presupposes something from which certain features have been abstracted. By contrast, everything concrete is just itself.” (Max Bense)

I. Abstract-Concrete

This quotation from a work by Max Bense dated 1965 (2) points to an important distinction which is of major importance in any discussion of what concrete photography is. Abstraction and concretion are different modes of perception and representation. They actually proceed in opposite directions. The abstract method proceeds deductively. It deduces from the general to the particular, for example, from what is generally visible to what is particularly non-visible. It minimizes the inessential in favor of the essential. An abstract image is thus an expression of the “idea” of the object. The concrete method proceeds in the opposite direction, inductively. It starts with the particular, “nothingness”, the non-visible, for example, a thought, an idea, and allows a new “object” to emerge from this: a complex whole, a construct. The resulting image is new, visible, yet quite different, bearing scarcely any resemblance to all previous known images. One can say, therefore, that abstraction idealizes an object, while concretion objectifies an ideal. An abstract photograph is non-concrete, a concrete photograph by contrast is non-abstract. It is something unique; it is itself.

Concrete photographs, however, are not only non-abstract, they are also non-figurative. They produce an object of their own. They are in themselves creative, and have no model. To this extent they are also non-symbolic. They neither depict nor do they represent anything. They bring new signs into the world. They are neither icons nor symbols. They have been liberated from these functions. They do not wish to mediate, they wish to be: not medium, but object. They are stubborn, egocentric, introverted; they show what they want and not what they should. They dream. Their beauty, truth and goodness are intertwined. They are absolute. And universal: a law onto themselves and self-absorbed. They are thus free of all the features which have been attributed to them or which they have acquired in the course of time. Yet at no time was this freedom free-of-charge; their pioneers sometimes paid a high price. They were derided and suffered abuse, prohibition and persecution.

II. Constructive-Concrete

Faced with the task of describing the concrete photograph, a second essential distinction has to be made: between concrete and constructive. These features are often regarded as being the same, a congenital defect of artistic Concretism. Thus Theo van Doesburg's manifesto on concrete painting, dated 1930 (3), to which the Concrete Community still makes reference to this day, forms a kind of link between the concrete and the constructive, a reciprocal precondition which may well be historically founded, but not factually. First, so the manifesto, pictorial elements and works of concrete painting should “signify nothing other than ‘themselves’” – whereby the composition of a painting should be “simply and visually verifiable” and “exact, anti-impressionist” in its “striving for absolute clarity”. The first demand is of an ontological nature. It is aimed at the existence and self-understanding of the artwork, and insists that it be independent and autonomous. The subsequent demands are of a stylistic nature, aimed at specific forms of work, and at the use and exclusion of certain stylistic means. In view of the circumstances, and of his own oeuvre, it may have been self-evident for van Doesburg to link these two levels, the ontological and the stylistic. From this point of view, linking them in the art historical context certainly has an importance that is not to be ignored. On the other hand, it must be said that the concrete method cannot lay claim to a formal style of its own. It must also be possible to use other stylistic means to create a concrete artwork that refers only to itself. To insist on the interdependence of the concrete and the constructive, for historical reasons and forever, would be pure dogmatism. It would also not be very encouraging for the further development of concrete art. After all, concretism is primarily about the artist's self-realization in his oeuvre, combined with the aspiration that the work be unconditionally autonomous. This fact has been described as one of the greatest achievements of 20th century art. As an act of freedom. All other demands seem secondary by comparison. The explosive force lies in the “itself”.

The term Concretism, therefore, goes beyond that of Constructivism. It is the more far-reaching, more radical approach. Concretism proves to be the overriding method, Constructivism one of its possibilities, a variety of concretism. Max Bill, a master of this dialectic, puts it as follows: “Constructive art is that part of concrete art which uses systematic-constructive means”. (4) The rigorous demand that concrete works be clear, exact or “anti-impressionistic” is thus no longer applicable. So they can also be unclear, imprecise and blurred. I would certainly claim this for concrete photographic works, because, as everybody knows, dust and blurredness are concrete photographic realities.

Artistic concretion throws each idiom back on itself, returning it to its beginnings, its fundamental idea – so as to constantly make sure of if. That it its task and its meaning. Its achievements are those of its pioneers. They realized that linguistic conventions and habits had to be scrutinized from time to time and their foundations examined. This applies to all idiomatic forms, that of speech and sound, gestures and movements, and to the idiom of painting – and of photography.

III. Formalism-Concretism

This applies in particular today, on the threshold to a “different” photography which not so much “takes” as “gives” pictures. It is not surprising that fundamental activities are now more strongly in evidence: through exhibitions and publications, collections and symposia. What actually constitutes the photographic? What features of this epoch-making medium are still being used? The concretization of the image, indeed concrete photography, is not a luxury, therefore, not a superfluous, but rather a necessary exercise, a duty. Concrete photographs are form-related, formalistic. They are a project of the Aesthetic of Form, which is exclusively devoted to the shaping of aesthetic objects. They are a pictorial expression of formalism in the sense of a philosophical-aesthetic discipline. Questions of syntax (form: how?) are to the fore, questions of semantics (content: what?) and pragmatics (function: for what?) retreat into the background. Formalism and Concretism are related. They point to the same goal. Their questions are questions of syntax. The image as image, itself, its essence – is pure form.

Such ideas were already in circulation in the late 19th century. They were connected with the exploration of vision – as a condition for every kind of visual aesthetic experience and knowledge. At that time, the importance of this kind of experience and knowledge for modern man was being increasingly acknowledged. A central concept formulated then was “the visibility of the image” (5). This was, as it were, the ultimate reason for its being, once people had begun to strip the image of all representational functions, intellectually at first, then actually, as certainly happens with the concrete image. The question raised was whether it was possible to conceive an image that was neither icon nor symbol. Can an image exist that is not a medium? What would it look like? What meaning would it then have? The drive towards abstraction and the call for the autonomy of the image as an act of liberation from all constraints result in nothing other than pure form, the image as object in itself, the object of pure observation and sensual perception. The theory of the visibility of the image, i.e., the recognition of the image as an exclusively visible, only-visible object, is essential for the practice of the autonomous image – and vice versa. To cite Lambert Wiesing, it is a form of being, not of appearance. The concrete image starts at a point, and reaches a point where all the others cannot start or end. In works he wrote between 1876 and 1887, the philosopher Konrad Fiedler found compelling formulae for an “unfolding of vision through art”. He is thus one of the decisive pre-thinkers of the concrete image. (6)

IV. Concrete Photography

Corresponding photographic works have existed since 1917. In their features – not in their form – they are consistent with works of the established concrete fine arts. As already mentioned, the two essential concepts here are self-referentiality and inherent momentum. There are also other known designations for these: self-absorption and autopoiesis. Works whose sign references (i.e., that which they depict, signify or show) point exclusively to themselves are regarded as self-referential. They only “mean” what is there, and to this extent they are opposed to an outside reference, the photographic normal case, where reference is made to objects that are not there. Works whose existence, impact and novelty are exclusively based on the use of their very own means and methods, in our case, light and light-sensitive material, qualify as having inherent momentum.

Images of this kind explore the reality of the image using the means of the image. They are photographs of photography. They do not render visible, they are visible, only-visible. They are not media, they are objects.

Such statements are only possible today – almost one hundred years after they were first articulated as ideas and works. Only today do we have an appropriate set of terms at our disposal thanks to which connections that were latent to date have become evident, comprehensible, and a certain understanding emerges. In this case, the field of practice was the more progressive. Kandinsky created the first concrete image in 1910. It was called the “First Abstract Watercolor” (7) – without it actually being abstract. It was concrete. And thus ground-breaking. It was completely free, just “itself”, as we now know. But the suitable expression was missing, did not yet exist. It only came into force in 1930 through Theo von Doesburg, as already mentioned. The relevant date for photography lies almost exactly between the other two: in 1916, the Englishman Alvin Langdon Coburn announced an “abstract photography” with the express aim of drawing his guild's attention to their own, real potential – by neglecting all other, all “superfluous”, contingent features of the photograph. Coburn appealed to the photographers of his time to reflect on their own means, their own “form and structure”, as he put it. (8) In 1917, his Vortographs, purely structural images of a crystalline beauty, made the decisive artistic contribution to his aesthetic, an idea which was still altogether unusual at the time, especially when on considers that Coburn had been involved in the aesthetic discourse on “pictorial” and “straight” photography carried on by Stieglitz and his circle in the New World of America. But he had also left that behind him. In thrall to British Vorticism, Coburn favored a completely “different” photograph and went his own way. He is the first concrete photographer.

It is not possible to outline the numerous stages in the development of the new genre within the scope of this essay. The historian of photography Rolf H. Krauss describes them, in retrospect, as “monads”, using an expression of Benjamin's, as exemplary islands of knowledge on which the striving to achieve pure form is evident. (9) They were personal achievements on the part of the photographers, and not those of other fine artists using photography, as was often the case later, in the era of Concept Art. They reveal that the photographers were highly varied in terms of their practice. A cogent historical presentation of their aesthetic is still pending. Skill in handling concrete photographs is not widespread, scarcely anyone knows how to evaluate them. They did not exist, neither the concrete nor the photographic community recognized, let alone acknowledged them. There is no concrete photograph to be found in that stronghold of the concrete, the Zurich foundation “Haus konstruktiv” (formerly: Stiftung für konstruktive und konkrete Kunst Zürich), as the art historian Beate Reese discovered. (10) The photography world also had its difficulties. Concrete photographs were tolerated as “a game with artistic means” or as “experiments”, but at times they were also regarded as “degenerate” and as a “dubious genre”. (11) People were not aware of their wide implications.

According as the treatment of photography in the artistic context becomes more differentiated, however, this kind of attitude would seem to be gradually disappearing. Here and there, circles and centers of concrete photography are forming, most recently in the – as yet still small, but exemplary – “Concrete Photography” section of the Peter C. Ruppert Collection, “Concrete Art in Europe after 1945”. (12) This is part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum im Kulturspeicher Würzburg and is thus a positive sign. Twenty-five works by fourteen male artists and the female artist Inge Dick, stand for many others who created similar works. They are among the modern classics of Concrete Photography. They could be complemented by works of their pioneers and of the current avant-garde in this field.


© 2022, Gottfried-Jäger, Bielefeld