Formalism

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 7 (Julie Penrose Fountain) Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 7
(Julie Penrose Fountain)
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

I’ve become interested recently in the idea of formalism in art and how that may play a role in my photography.  At the outset, I should state that I have no formal training in art or photography, and so my thoughts on this subject are based only on my own experiences making images and what I have otherwise read or taught myself.  That being said, my understanding of formalism in visual art is that it is an approach to making images that stresses the purely visual aspects of the image – line, shape, texture, etc. – rather than other ways to interpret the image, such as what the subject is, what the concept is, any social or historical contexts, etc.

Formalism really resonates with me.  I think it’s always been the crux of the way that I see things photographically.  To me, objects in the world are more than things that happen to be in my field of view.  Lines have power, they slice through the air in arcs or diagonals, or create balance and harmony in horizontals and verticals.  Shapes have weight, they pull and tug on things and need to be arranged and balanced.  Textures have feel, the smooth ones feel like you could reach out and glide across them, the rough ones feel like they could skin your knee.  Composing a photograph is mostly a fascinating and immensely enjoyable game that’s all about managing these powers, weights, and feels to arrange them in pleasing, harmonious or interesting ways.

What’s missing in this approach?

Well, for starters, there’s not a whole lot of emphasis on the subject.  In this image, the subject is the Julie Penrose Fountain, a large work of public art in a park in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  However, the image is not about the fountain, at least not to me.  If you were to look up a picture of the fountain online, I think you would agree that this image does not represent what the fountain really looks like in a faithful or representative way.  Rather, this image to me is all about the lines, the shapes, and the textures.  And not even these lines, shapes, and textures in an abstract, theoretical way, but rather in the way that the lines convey power in their sweep, that the shapes defy gravity in their curves, and that the metal surfaces create fluidity in their smoothness.

What else is missing?  There’s no particularly cerebral concept here – the photograph basically is a visual game, and represents no deeper thinking than simply the impact that the visual information has.  Also missing is any social or historical context – it just doesn’t matter to me when this fountain was erected, or why, or even who Julie Penrose (the fountain’s namesake) was.

If there’s a criticism of formalism, I suspect the criticism is that formalism is cold, emotionless, and detached.  I respectfully disagree.  While it’s certainly possible that formalistic art can be cold, emotionless, and detached – any art can be bad – there’s nothing about a formalistic approach that commands this result.  Instead, when used well, I think formalism serves to bring out and highlight the emotional impact of an image, for example by emphasizing aspects such as power, weight, and feel, and eliminating competing and potentially distracting elements like concept and context.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted February 16, 2015 at 11:06 am by Rick G | Permalink

    I agree with your disagreement. Formalism is about emotion- that primal recoil we feel when we see darkness, for example, or the slight sense of stress we feel when looking at a diagonal line about to fall over. I think the best art affects us on several levels, and this primal level is quite distinct from the emotion we feel when looking at something recognizable- a massive live oak at sunrise; a fireman rescuing a kitten; our aunt Sally with homemade cookies.

    I experienced this primal level of emotion to a shocking degree a couple of years ago when a friend and I went to the Dale Chihuly “Venetians” exhibit at the Ft. Collins Museum of Art. As I viewed several larger pieces, which consisted of dozens of curling glass shafts emanating from central spires, I realized that I was responding to some feeling deep within myself other than an appreciation for the beauty of the pieces. I stood there for a while and finally realized that I was sensing motion in each static shaft. Each one had an individual feel of speed and orbit depending on the radius of its curvature and the way in which its diameter swelled and constricted. Some seemed to be whizzing around like comets while others lazily circled the mass.
    I mentioned it to my friend (also a photographer), and she immediately recognized that she had been responding to something but hadn’t been able to put her finger on it.

    Had I not been aware of the principles of composition and how these elements touch us psychologically, I’m sure I would never have noticed this response within myself and would have just chalked up the exhibit as “very compelling.”
    I mention this because your image above contains a very palpable sense of motion although I’m sure the fountain wasn’t going anywhere when you captured it.

    I think an artist’s ability to see and work at this level is what Proust described when he said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”

    • Posted February 17, 2015 at 12:50 am by admin | Permalink

      Thanks for your kind words about this image, Rick. I’m never quite sure if the architecture stuff resonates with people the way, say, landscapes do.

      I thought the achitectural image here would be a natural for illustrating the ideas about formalism, but really they apply to the other types of subject matter I seem drawn to as well – abstracts and landscapes (or maybe I should say abstracts and landscapes provide a good frame upon which to hang a formalist approach). I was going to discuss landscapes and abstracts a bit, but I felt the post was getting kind of wordy. Oh well, it’s good to have topics for future posts lined up.

      Interstingly, in my own work I observe that I’m not generally interested in portaits, street photography, documentary, etc. And of course, that’s not to devalue that kind of work – I do enjoy viewing it, it’s just not where my lens naturally wanders to. I wonder if that’s because it’s more difficult to take a formalist approach with those subjects…

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