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.