There’s a quote by Duchamp incorporated into a work by graphic artist Mel Bochner: “I would like to see photography make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable”. Today, that sounds like a remarkably astute description of social media. Photography has never been so ubiquitous, so convenient and so... bad.
As such, fine art photography is fighting a PR battle, positing its self-worth amidst a sea of duck-face selfies; sure, there are plenty of bad paintings out there, but you’re not forced to look at them 100 times a day. Just look at the ridicule a collector was subjected to in 2014 when he paid $6.5m for a black and white photo of a sunbeam in a canyon.
In Shape of Light, the Tate Modern addresses this in a very literal sense, taking works of abstract photography and hanging them besides thematically similar paintings. Marta Heopffner’s angular photograms reside beside Kandinsky’s famous Swinging; Brassai’s architectural swirls are placed next to a Miro; Nathan Lerner’s squiggly slow exposures are hung by a Pollock; German Lorca’s close-up of a boxy window is in the shadow of a Mondrian. And yes, if you squint a bit there are visual similarities – and some deliberate homage – but nothing comes close to convincing me that these pieces are on an equal footing.
There are rooms filled with shots of the sky, or knees on a beach, or the lattice-insides of an electricity pylon, which now look like school art projects. The show gets better as it progresses; Gottfried Jager’s geometric Pinhole Structures are both austere and psychedelic; Bela Kolarova’s egg shells floating in a sea of white or black bring a smile to your face; others use radiation or photosensitive chemicals or digital noise to “paint” with light.
There are some brilliant pieces, but the curation feels combative, and it’s an argument the Tate was always destined to lose. There’s something amiss when you visit a photography exhibition and spend most of your time admiring paint on canvas.