Photography has been – historically, commercially, and artistically – focussed on the idea of documentation and the representation of situations and events. What, then, is the role of abstraction in photography, especially contemporary photography? By its nature, photography as an art form, when depicting abstractions, has a much different set of parameters and possibilities than painting or sculpture – while the latter two are inhibited basically by what the artist can imagine; photographic images are bound by the parameters of what a camera can capture in reality. No matter how abstract the photograph, there is always an anchor of representation. It is straightforward to create a non-representational painting, but abstraction with photography is inherently different.
Clayton Cotterell‘s photographs – and indeed a great deal of ‘abstract’ photography – are not abstractions in the painterly sense of being non-representational. In fact, most often he does little to hide the formal subject of an image. This is a fern…that a gushing stream…over there a gaping opening to a cave. Where abstraction functions in his series Arrangements is in his abstraction of theme, deconstructing a standard narrative into something at once broad and familiar. Instead of searching for abstraction through surprising or oblique images that the viewer is not used to or expecting, Cotterell uses the recognisable as a launching point.
This thematic abstraction hinges on the razor-sharp timing of Cotterell’s photographs. He captures seemingly chance confluences of vivid colour, clear and simple form that at times rests in the purely geometric, and momentary, fragile light to create the sense that the images are instantaneous abstract compositions. If time were shifted even slightly forward or backward, the house of cards would fall or the thin curtain may blow out of place; the light may dapple the foods in the water in a way that lacks the zap of familiarity that runs so deeply through Arrangements.
Cotterell is toying with precision, with pointed yet thoroughly casual photographs, which leads to a curious point about the architecture of his work. Are they serendipitous and spontaneous convergences of light, timing and form? Or are they the products of a rigorously constructed, situational calculus that aims to create a breezy mask? Is Cotterell simply documenting chance events with a wide scope of familiarity or is he seeking carefully manufactured situations as a framework for his themes?
The photographer himself said that ‘in Arrangements, I am recognising and allowing for spontaneous encounters of light, colour, and form as they occur in the world around me, referencing a current language of photography by seeking out naturally occurring abstractions.’ It is arguable, then, that the answer is somewhere in between – spontaneity in nature is the vehicle that allows Cotterell to make his statement: on the current trend of studio manipulations in photography, and reject post-production practices in favor of naturally occurring perception.
Arrangements is inherently an experiment in producing modern photographic abstraction using traditional techniques and viewpoints. Cotterell’s images are, as glimpses of natural abstraction, free from the digital polish of post-production or after-the-fact manipulation. His abstraction is rooted in a deeply familiar subject matter that finds the theoretical in actual situations, and touches the intangible in a definite manner.
Arrangements is currently on show at Ampersand, 2916 NE Alberta St, Portland, OR, until 24 October 2013
Written by Matthew Flores / Edited by Steve Messer / Published 18 October 2013