second nature: abstract photography then and now

“It is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye”

-Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography (1931)

Abstract photography challenges our popular view of photography as an objective image of reality by reasserting its constructed nature. In Walter Benjamin’s essay on the history of photography, the philosopher and critical theorist articulates photography’s ‘second nature’ as its inherent ability to detach and abstract the visible from the real. Non-representational photography lives in this contested middle ground between material reality and photographic illusion—fact and fiction—first and second natures. Today, anyone who has a cell phone can take and send digital pictures instantaneously. In response to this snapshot culture, many artists are returning to the study of photography’s underlying properties to consciously construct an image of reality. Second nature looks at the contemporary embrace of the highly fabricated image as a return to an earlier time in photography’s history. As such, this exhibition takes up the subject of abstract photography through a temporal pairing—presenting the scientific and expressionistic experimentation of photography in the first half of the 20th century from the Museum’s collection with current explorations of the medium.

Freed from its duty to represent, abstract photography continues to be a catchall genre for the blending of mediums and disciplines. It is an arena to test photography. By intermixing works from deCordova’s collection by György Kepes, Harold Edgerton, and Aaron Siskind from the 1930s-1950s, with works by photographers practicing today including Eileen Quinlan, Arthur Ou, and Yamini Nayar, second nature focuses on the continual probing and questioning of the medium and conventions of picture-making that complicate our understanding of photography. The artists in second nature grow the ever expanding field of photography by revisiting themes of hyperrealism, constructivism, and the materiality of time through light as well as processes of analog photography.

Artists include: David Akiba, Lucas Blalock, Mel Bochner, Stan Brakhage, Cree Bruins, Caleb Charland, Talia Chetrit, Harold Edgerton, Matthew Gamber, Meggan Gould, Bryan Graf, Sharon Harper, Greg J. Hayes, Julia Hechtman, Corin Hewitt, Barbara Kasten, György Kepes, Alejandra Laviada, Isaac Layman, Daniel Lefcourt, Aspen Mays, Elizabeth McAlpine, Yamini Nayar, Arthur Ou, Anthony Pearson, Daniel Phillips, Luther Price, Eileen Quinlan, Mariah Robertson, Hugh Scott-Douglas, Aaron Siskind, Luke Stettner, Sara VanDerBeek, and Jennifer West.

Second nature is organized by Lexi Lee Sullivan, Assistant Curator.

Second nature is made possible in part by generous support from Beth and Richard Marcus. Special thanks to Arlette and Gus Kayafas.

This exhibition is not intended to be a survey of abstract photography, but rather a focused study of art being made now that revisits and continues some of the themes and creative explorations of 20th century photography. By presenting the works side-by-side, second nature overlays a contemporary lens through which to reinterpret and recontextualize the museum’s holdings of abstract photography, and also highlights the expanded field today.