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Photography and Formalism

Updated on September 18, 2014
CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

"In art history, formalism is the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. In painting formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than iconography or the historical and social context. At its extreme, formalism in art history posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance. In archaeology, where it tends to be called morphology, the study and comparison of form remains an essential method of identifying objects." Wikipedia

So let's start by trying to get you to comprehend what formalism is supposed to be but keep in mind that this is not as easy as it may sound and you really have to be sure of what you are trying to convey as a message when you decide to capture an image meant to be a representation of formalism.

As simply as I can, formalism is said to be shown when the image that an audience is looking at contains all the information needed for the same audience to tell what the subject is, what it means, how it was made, and the purpose of the subject (why it was made/composed or exists).

Let's say that you take a picture of a water fountain like the ones featured in many places like the office, the school or the park.

An audience can immediately tell that it is a water fountain, that is meant for drinking water, that it is located in the park,office or school, and the reason why it was made (for people to drink water from). All of this is accomplished by simply looking at the image without the need for any text or explanation.

Off course this is as simplistic an answer as one can give. The key to make this style a successful one is to accomplish what the image of the water fountain did but when the subjects are not as simple as a water fountain.

Do you know what this is? is not a water fountain

Public domain
Public domain | Source

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Others give a stricter meaning to the term formalism when it comes to defining an art piece whether it is a painting, a sculpture or a photograph.

Everything that you need to define the art is done by simply looking at the art itself with a good measure of austerity.

When you look at images that purport to be works of formalism you will notice that they are simplistic. In other words they will rarely feature complicated or overly elaborate subject matter.

"In art it means a piece that is totally about it's elements and form. No hidden message, no context, no meaning. What you see is what it means. All it is."

Hint, think of masculinity and power

CC BY 2.5
CC BY 2.5 | Source

Many artists as well as photographers who follow the formalism movement compose their art work by simply taking what is available to them and composing a work of art, i.e a photograph, where all the elements are visually balanced thus presenting a balanced, well composed and pleasing image.

A formalist photographer like any formalist artist does not need to defend the art work. The artwork stands up to criticism on its own merit.

If it does not then it is said that the artist did not take all elements into consideration or arranged them correctly according to the doctrine.

What can you tell by looking at this image?

Philip Pikart
Philip Pikart | Source

Formalist artists work with absolutes; absolutes in color, texture, materials,composition and visualization.

"the artist's ability to link these "absolute qualities" on the picture plane, but also of his ability to create something visually captivating independent of anecdotes and contextual subject matter"

These photographers look for purity in their work. Whether the photograph is considered to be abstract art or not, the work represents the purest form of art because the image by its own merits is self-explanatory; it exists and stand up to criticism on its own merits and by itself does not contain any hidden meaning.

Two simple rings. Think of what they stand for

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

Keep in mind that this is not an exact principle or thinking. Images can convey something to someone yet can stand for something else completely different to the person standing next to him or her.

So long as you understand what the formalism movement is trying to do and accomplish by this very same understanding you begin to get a clearer idea and way of looking at things.

You can also start to look at art works and reach an educated decision of whether or not you are in reality looking at an image formulated and composed by following the formalism art approach.

© 2014 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      sallybea: Thank you

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      6 years ago from Norfolk


      Very nice and very well explained. Thank you.



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