Notes on Rexer’s ‘The Edge of Vision’

Elizabeth Graves reviews The introduction to The Edge of Vision: the Rise of Abstraction in Photography by Lyle Rexer

Writer / Elizabeth Graves

Lyle Rexer, the author of the sumptuously illustrated 2002 book Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes has a new book out on abstraction, and it is delightful and informative.

The introduction to The Edge of Vision: the Rise of Abstraction in Photography, (published in 2009 by Aperture) invokes Talbot with a retrospective, conceptual viewpoint. Rexer describes his first experience viewing an original Talbot print, and remarks that Talbot’s works “held a privileged position. Not just because they came first, but because they came before photographic seeing was codified, before a consensus had developed about what a photograph should like like and what (and how) it ought to represent.”

We (all those of us reading this on the Internet) live in cultures where photographs are ubiquitous, and where the newest method of presenting an image is always the “correct” method. In 2010, we have the full history of photography to draw our techniques and inspiration from, yet our audience is often confused by images that do not match the look and feel of the advertising they see each day. The idea that there was a time when ALL options for potential photographic representation were on the table serves as a reminder that ‘seeing’ photographs is something we have been trained to do, and that public acceptance of image conventions are the product of habit and training rather than of quality.

Rexer’s book begins with the origins of photography, with its subtle photograms and early experiments in capturing everyday objects, and cycles through history’s different applications and conventions, ultimately exploring photographs which do not appear to be (or are not) directly representational. The text describes the concepts behind the work shown, Rexer’s interpretations of these concepts, and how they fit into the artistic philosophies of their times. The lengthy theoretical text is written in a highly engaging style. The examples are beautifully reproduced, and could expand your personal definition of what “alternative processes” can be.

In Rexer’s view,

“…photography is simultaneously an investigation of reality and the means of investigating that reality.”

I believe that most of us who experiment with photography have felt the thrill of discovery in our work, wanting to know not “what the world looked like (which everyone knew) but what it looked like photographed,” and photographed in a specific process we are studying.

This book is a worthwhile and enjoyable read for anyone interested in photographic theory and the thrill of experimentation.

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