Tina Modotti, Bandelier, Corn and Sickle, 1927

Tina Modotti Bandelier, Corn and Sickle 1927

The subjects and approaches of modernist photography vary widely, but are united by a fascination with the medium itself. Every image asks what photography is capable of and how it can be pushed further.

This final room brings together three interlinked approaches. It shows the still life genre reimagined by photographers who used the technical capabilities of the camera to reveal the beauty of everyday things. Objects captured at unconventional angles or extreme close-up become strange, even unrecognisable.

A similar effect of defamiliarisation was accomplished by taking photographs from radically new perspectives, positioning a camera at the point of view of the ‘worm’s eye’ or ‘bird’s eye’. This created extreme foreshortening that transformed photographs from descriptive images of things into energetic compositions hovering between abstraction and representation.

 Abstraction pushes against photography’s innate ability to record objectively. Radical techniques such as cameraless image-making simplified the medium to the point of capturing the play of light on photosensitive paper. By stripping it back to its most basic components, artists celebrated photography, not as a tool for reproduction, but as a creative medium capable of producing new imagery.

Contradictions of perspective. Contrasts of light. Contrasts of form. Points of view impossible to achieve in drawing and painting.
Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1920s 

Together, the works in this exhibition show how photography pushed the boundaries of the possible, changing the world through the ways in which it was seen and understood. ‘Knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of camera and pen alike,’ wrote Moholy-Nagy in 1927, foreseeing the cultural dominance of the photographic image. This extraordinary period still impacts how we, the photo-literate future, read and create images today.